Charlton Heston Actor Among Actors by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Heston Family.

When Charlton Heston accepted the Oscar for his starring role in the 1959 Ben-Hur classic he thanked the first secretary in a Broadway casting office who let him in to get his first job. 

That was Charlton Heston.

He didn't forget how it all started with the small favors and bighearted people.

With the help of a massive ad campaign Ben-Hur won 11 of 12 nominations, including Best Actor for Heston. It was the most expensive film of its era with a budget of $15 million whichended up earning $75 million. The film employed more than 50 thousand people. Producer Sam Zimbalist constructed 3,000 sets in Rome.  Heston said he never worked so hard on a part. 

“I’ve played three presidents, three saints and two geniuses—and that’s probably enough for any man.”
— Charlton Heston

Just before Susan Haywood announced the Oscar winner Heston wrote in his diary that he knew he got it.

"And I did. I kissed Lydia (wife) and walked to the stage dripping wet, except for a pepper-dry mouth: classic stage fright. I'll never forget the moment, or the night for that matter," he wrote in his diary.

As a kid I remember sitting in the theater spellbound by the chariot race in Ben-Hur. The scene required 15,000 extras and five weeks to film. There were 18 chariots built, half of which were used for practice.  

For a 10-year-old looking up at this larger-than-life man with the chiseled features and gripping speaking voice--it all seemed too real and too wonderful.

The film's desert scenes were set to be shot in Libya until the Muslim Libyan authorities realized the film was about Christianity. MGM was ordered out of the country and continued filming in Spain. Concurrently, Ben-Hur was the only Hollywood film to make the Vatican approved film list in the category of religion.         

Heston often played heroic parts including Moses, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, John the Baptist, El Cid and Michelangelo.

"I've played three presidents, three saints and two geniuses--and that's probably enough for any man," he said. Some of their energy tended to rub off a bit on him he added.

Heston's real name was John Charles Carter. He decided to become an actor after auditioning for a high school play and made his 1947 Broadway debut in "Antony and Cleopatra". His first Hollywood film came in 1950 in "Dark City".

During his 60-year acting career Heston appeared in over 100 films, including epics such as "The Ten Commandments" and "The Agony and the Ecstasy".

“To me, he was the consummate leading man. He was tall, he was handsome, he was sensitive, he was gruff when he had to be. He was a great cowboy, he was perfect for those historical roles,” actress Shirley Jones said. “He could do everything, and there aren’t many actors around today who could.”

Heston died on April 5, 2008. He was 84.

On March 22, The Charlton Heston collection went on the block at Bonham's, Los Angeles.

Charlton Heston

Portrait; Heston and his children, Fraser and Holly; charcoal drawing; signed William George; 25 inches by 34 inches overall; $437.

Portrait; Charlton Heston; oil on canvas; depicts bearded Heston in red shirt; signed Dagne; 1963; 19 inches by 28 1/2 inches overall; $1,625.

Caricature; cast of "The Big Country"; depicts the stars; pen-and-ink, circa 1958; signed (Al) Hirschfeld; 24 1/2 inches by 33 inches; $5,000.

Screenplay; Working screenplay for "Ben-Hur"; many revision pages inscribed with Heston's name; 1959; $12,500.

Director's Chair; folding chair with brown leather seat and back; stamped "Charlton Heston"; 49 inches high; $16,250.  


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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