Iconic Hollywood actor Charlton Heston will forever be remembered in epic larger-than-life roles.
His key films included 1956’s The Ten Commandments where he portrayed Moses, the 1959 film Ben Hur where he was cast as Judah Ben-Hur (and won a Best Actor Oscar), the 1961 film El Cid as the Castilian knight Don Rodrigo Díaz de Viva and 1968 blockbuster Planet of the Apes as George Taylor.
But if you ask his son Fraser C. Heston — who we spoke to exclusively below — one of his smaller lesser known films was truly one of his best.
Fraser C. Heston’s recollections of his famous father are peppered with intriguing backstories and wonderful anecdotes.
His own filmmaking career sort of began the year after he was born when he was cast as the baby Moses in the Cecil B. DeMille film — and he has since become a film director, film producer, screenwriter and actor.
Fraser’s screenwriting and producing credits with his father included the 1982 feature Mother Lode. His father, who passed away in 2008, continues to serve as a source of creative vision as he tackles subjects that are off the beaten track and perplex, such as the disappearance of scion Michael Rockefeller in 2011 documentary The Disappearance of Michael Rockefeller.
His father came from the Burt Lancaster school of great-looking Big. American. Men. Tall, physically fit and possessing regal stature, unabashedly hairy of chest, and blessed with bone structure that money could not buy, he had an ability to dominate and steal every scene he was captured in.
Heston senior was a storied civil rights activist, a longtime voting member of the Academy and served as a three-term President of the Screen Actors Guild.
He was a supporter of civil rights and the president of the National Rifle Association (NRA). By Hollywood standards, he also had a rarified enduring marriage to his wife Lydia and raised two children in a town notorious for fractured family life.
As one of the most politically involved actors of his generation, Charlton Heston was an outspoken advocate for President John F. Kennedy and marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., standing as a strong supporter of his movement even after King’s untimely assassination.
It comes as no surprise that Fraser – who inherited his dad’s length of bone, listened to the great filmmakers of his father’s era as a young man and learned invaluable insight in cinema and in politics – has a desire to make films that leave an impression.
He also loved his father and continues to produce and make films that would have pleased him.
Monsters and Critics spoke to Fraser C. Heston about filmmaking, his father’s legacy and timely subjects, such as the NRA.
Monsters and Critics: Fraser, so many people equate your dad with President Reagan and his vocal NRA support. How did a man who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and support Kennedy wind up on the more…right side of things? What did you observe (politically in your home) as your father got older?
Fraser C. Heston: I think my father did not believe there was any contradiction. Civil rights are not the exclusive province of the Left, nor of the Democratic Party, after all – they are enshrined in the constitution and are the responsibility of every citizen to uphold.
CH, as we called him, got involved in civil rights – he led the arts contingent for Dr. King in the March on Washington in 1963, and demonstrated outside segregated establishments in the South — at a time when “it was not fashionable, to say the least” to use his phrase, among the mainstream public, nor in the film industry either.
We still have a file of angry telegrams he received from average Americans who felt he was “helping communism”. In fact, he thought he was doing quite the reverse.
One of the signboards he carried while demonstrating for civil rights read “RACISM HERE HELPS COMMUNISM EVERYWHERE!”
Remember also that both Dad and Ronald Reagan were staunch labor men; Dad served on the Board of the Screen Actors Guild and later as President for six terms, working for the rights of rank and file actors, for health and pension benefits and the residuals which they now enjoy (ironically Dad never got a penny of residuals for either Ben Hur or Ten Commandments, BTW – it was before Dad and Ronald Reagan brought that to the bargaining table!).
My father believed in freedom, and in defending the Constitution – all of it – whether the Second Amendment (which he believed “guaranteed all the others”), the First, the Fourth or the Thirteenth, all of which have come under attack lately.
Contrary to popular belief, he was neither a gun nut nor a serious gun collector. He did what he did for his country, which included serving in the 11th Air Force in aerial combat in the Pacific Theater in World War Two, and winning the Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian Honor, because he believed that history teaches us that democracies are fragile entities and that when good men do nothing, they will surely perish.
M&C: How were guns discussed and handled in your home and why was your dad so fervent in his NRA views, in your opinion?
FCH: Dad was always scrupulously careful and responsible around firearms. After all, he used them in his work often. He knew that even a blank cartridge in a gun can be dangerous.
He stressed gun safety and proper and responsible use and storage of firearms, and taught me those things, and quite a lot else besides, from an early age.
As the saying goes, he taught me to “ride, shoot straight, and speak the truth”. And I believe I have passed that on to my son Jack (who is about to produce his third feature film, BTW!).
On the political side, Dad believed, as I mentioned above, that the “Second Amendment is the one which guarantees all the others”, and his support for the Second Amendment and the National Rifle Association was his duty as a citizen.
It had everything to do with his firm belief that the Constitution, this most precious but tenuous of documents – which preserves the extraordinary, unprecedented, and unique freedoms which we take for granted in America, but are oh-so yearned for elsewhere – can be eroded and broken up piecemeal: a death of a thousand cuts. And that one day perhaps you, we may wake up and find some left- or right-wing junta (it doesn’t matter which) has taken over, and this great and wonderful experiment we call America will have suddenly come to an end.
It had nothing to do with his passion for firearms, or some fervent desire to collect them, neither of which he had.
M&C: I am horrified that they remade the classic film Ben-Hur, as your father’s role in that film and so many of his works remains powerful and very much relevant today. How do you feel about your father’s classic roles being reinterpreted in our lifetime?
FCH: I am not [horrified about the Ben-Hur redux]. I think if anything, it’s a compliment that great films and great roles are sometimes remade. After all, Shakespeare has been re-done by generations of actors and directors for the last five hundred years. And both my father’s versions of Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur were themselves remakes of films made in the 1920s.
One of my favorite films we made together was Treasure Island, which I had the honor to write and direct with my father in the starring role as Long John Silver, opposite Christian Bale at age 16. That film had already been made about four times, and I think it has been remade at least twice since!
I look forward to Mark Burnett’s version of Ben-Hur, and to my pal Jack Huston’s portrayal of Judah Ben-Hur. The trailer looks pretty cool. Though they’re never going to top that chariot race in the original – which of course was made before the days of CGI!
M&C: What is your favorite Charlton Heston film?
FCH: Well, I am actually partial to Ben-Hur, which I think was the first modern epic film, and would stand up against, say, Gladiator any day of the week (a film I also loved).
But (and not counting my own Treasure Island, as above!) I think Will Penny, the small Western Dad made for Paramount, written and directed by Tommy Gries, was one of his best films.
It was essentially an indie film made by a studio – a revisionist, ultra-gritty, realist Western, more in the mode of Unforgiven than say, The Savage (where CH played an Apache warrior!).
I also happen to think Touch of Evil (directed by and co-starring Orson Welles) is a minor masterpiece of film-making.
Dad, with typical self-deprecation, called it “the best B-movie ever made”. The big box-office films, like El Cid and Planet of the Apes are also marvelous, but they speak for themselves.
M&C: You were a famous person’s child, a star baby! How did your father and mother shield you from the nonsense of Hollywood? What was it like as you grew up and what was a day in the life of being the child of someone so famous?
FCH: I won the parent lottery. No question. Both my mother Lydia (still with us and going strong at age 93!) and my father were loving, kind, caring, generous and forgiving people (far from the old testament-prophet-like character he so often portrayed on-screen) with a great sense of adventure and a wonderful sense of humor.
After all, they were college sweethearts and stayed married for 65 years, some kind of a record in Tinseltown.
They also kept us grounded in their mid-western, Greatest Generation values, which helped a lot. My sister Holly and I grew up on movie sets around the world, from Hollywood to London, Rome, Athens, Madrid, Cairo, Paris, Mexico, etc.
We lived – and worked – in those places for months. We learned to speak the language. Such a different experience than you get when you’re a tourist.
My mother dragged us up and down ruins and my dad goaded us through art museums – we called it ruin-running and museum-marching – from the Parthenon to the Pyramids of Cheops (which we climbed!), from Hadrian’s Wall to Machu Picchu, from the Louvre to the Prado, to the Met to the Tate, from Cinecittà Studios in Rome to the Chichen Itza pyramids in the Yucatan.
It was a magical childhood. No wonder I became a filmmaker!
M&C: Your documentary The Search for Michael Rockefeller was fascinating. Can you talk about why you made it and explain partially any further outcome or fate Rockefeller may have had?
FCH: The disappearance of Michael Rockefeller is one of the enduring unsolved mysteries of the 20th Century. Until now.
In 1961, Michael, the son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller (future vice president of the United States and one of the richest men in the world) disappeared off the coast of Netherlands New Guinea.
His small trading catamaran had capsized, and after clinging to the wreckage for a night with his companion, a Dutch anthropologist, and in danger of drifting further out to sea, Michael set off to swim for the distant shore, uttering perhaps the most famous last words ever spoken by a rich white man who was about to disappear into the jungle: “I think I can make it.”
He was never seen again.
Or was he? Seven years later, in 1968, journalist Milt Machlin, then editor of the men’s adventure magazine Argosy, was approached by an Aussie smuggler called Donahue, who said, “What would you say, mate, if I told you I saw Michael Rockefeller alive, on an island off New Guinea, not three months ago?”
Donahue gave Milt the coordinates of the island and disappeared into the streets of New York City, without asking for reward or recognition of any kind.
Milt went to his publisher and said, “If by the remotest flight of fancy Michael is alive in the jungles of New Guinea, someone is going to have to find him. I want to be that man!”
So in 1969, Milt launched a small an expedition to New Guinea in search of Michael Rockefeller. Fortunately, he took along a cinematographer, two Bolex cameras, and ten thousand feet of color 16mm film.
Unfortunately, the film was never completed, and the original negatives and prints were lost to time and circumstance.
Fortunately, I found the lost film footage in 2008 in a warehouse in New England — and what a treasure trove that footage was!
Milt didn’t find Michael, needless to say, but what he did find out was what happened to him, along with thousands of feet of extraordinary film footage documenting an astonishing adventure across the length and breadth of New Guinea.
He shot some of the most remarkable film ever seen of the cannibals of the Asmat region where Michael disappeared (which gives you an idea of one version of Michael’s fate!).
Included in that footage was an extraordinary shot of hundreds of naked Asmat warriors paddling their canoes, in one of which is a naked white man who looks startlingly like Michael Rockefeller.
I couldn’t resist. We turned that footage into the award-winning feature-length documentary The Search for Michael Rockefeller, which played in film festivals around the world and is now streaming on Netflix and is also available on DVD on Amazon.com – and we are working on a feature version as well.
M&C: What are you working on now?
FCH: We have an eclectic slate of films planned here at Agamemnon Films – the production company my father and I founded in 1981.
In addition to the feature version of Search For Michael Rockefeller, mentioned above, tentatively titled Ghosts of New Guinea, my writing partner (and co-producer on the Rockefeller film), Heather McAdams and I wrote and published a novel last summer, called Desolation Sound.
It’s a mystery thriller, set in British Columbia, based on the true unsolved mystery of the severed human feet washing up inexplicably on the beaches around Vancouver and the Gulf Islands – and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police still claim “there is no sign of foul play”! The book is available on Amazon.com.
This is fertile ground for a mystery writer, and we are now working on a sequel, titled River of Tears, (based on the true story of more than forty young women who have disappeared along a single highway in Northern BC) — the second in a planned trilogy using the same characters, RCMP Corporal Liz McDonald and retired Seattle detective Jack Harris.
We are also developing the book project as a TV series with Canadian producer-director Pat Williams (Continuum).
We are developing a zombie film, set in World War Two Alaska (where my father served) called Aleutian Dead, and also a film about Cecil B. Demille and the early days of Hollywood, entitled DeMille Directs, among several other projects.
Hopefully after all that I will still have time to go fly fishing for steelhead and salmon in the wilds of British Columbia and Alaska, which is my true passion!