Charlton Heston – The Man Who Parted The Red Sea
“Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape.”
Heston in Planet Of The Apes (1968)
Charlton Heston, the actor who played Moses and parted the Red Sea in Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic adaptation The Ten Commandments 1956, died on April 4th at his home in Beverly Hills at the age of 84. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2002. The cause of death has been presumed to be complications from the disease.
A lead character actor with over 80 films to his credit, he is most known for his portrayal of historical figures, from El Cid opposite Sophia Loren to Michelangelo, American president Andrew Jackson, John the Baptist and Judah Ben-Hur (1959), the role that earned him the coveted Oscar as best actor in the first of the three films with the most academy awards in history (11) – Ben Hur, Titanic, and LOTR-The Return Of The King.
Born John Charles Carter in 1924 in Evanston, Illinois, he described in his 1995 Memoir, In The Arena, “I liked chopping wood, as did Abraham Lincoln, Kaiser Wilhelm and Ronald Reagan, though I adduce no trickle-down virtue from this.”
Classically trained, he came to Hollywood while it was being transformed by Marlon Brando. His large build, 6.3 inch height with a voice that sounded with some important proclamation, found a place in Hollywood history that no one could fill but him – an actor well suited for epic films. Although the highly flamboyant Cecil B DeMille’s adaptation of The Ten Commandments in all its bravado, it is his role as Moses that etched an indelible image when he raised his arms, staff in hand, with religious gaze, as the Red Sea parted; an image collectively evoked when the name Moses is mentioned.
Suffering pain betrayal, anger, despair and forgiveness as Judah Ben-Hur, going forth into a leper colony to find his mother and sister, while ultimately finding redemption, giving Him water before the Crucifixion in an act of compassion, earned him the Oscar in 1959.
He also portrayed President Andrew Jackson. In 1953’s The Presidents Lady, opposite the late Susan Hayward, succeeding in becoming a uniquely American, larger than life epic-scale hero with chiseled looks that impressed studio heads, he was credible in the role of important “distant era” characters of history. A star without a hint of personal scandal, he was a consummate actor giving credible performances to all his roles.
How ironic that his most famous line was as a stranded astronaut in 1967’s Science Fiction Classic, The Planet Of The Apes , “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape” represents the opposite to the roles he played earlier in his career, as a biblical hero. Other Science Fiction films included The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973) with Edward G. Robinson in his last film role.
His first major work, Dark City – 1950, a small role as a gambler caught the attention of Cecil B. DeMille who cast him as the circus ringleader in The Greatest Show On Earth 1952. This led to the coveted role as Moses, followed by one of his few contemporary roles as a Mexican narcotics agent in Orsen Wells‘ dark drama Touch Of Evil (1958) established his range of acting.
Controversial later in life, his political career as a staunch Conservative brought him in conflict with many in Hollywood. When he raised his arms at an NRA meeting as its President, with a rifle in hand, evoking images and words from his role as Moses in The Ten Commandments, he incited anger.
His legacy will be his passionate advocacy for the civil rights movement, the vast array of memorable performances in film and that moment, while descending from Mt. Sinai in The Ten Commandments, Joshua played by John Derek says, “He bears the light of God in his eyes.”