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Heston Still Shows His Star Power

Choosy about new parts, the actor famous for 'The Ten Commandments' and 'The Greatest Show on Earth' continues his career with a family project

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 26, 1996


"Alaska" is a family film made by a family team.

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It was directed by Fraser C. Heston, who supervised the arduous production in remote northern locations, some of them above the Arctic Circle.

And one of its key roles is played by the filmmaker's father: Charlton Heston, whose seemingly endless list of credits range from 1950s classics like "The Greatest Show on Earth" and "Touch of Evil" to recent projects like the comedy "Wayne's World 2" and Kenneth Branagh's coming "Hamlet."

Still as ruggedly handsome as when he captivated millions in "The Ten Commandments" and "Planet of the Apes," the elder Heston visited New York recently to launch "Alaska." He plays a devious poacher who causes trouble for the main characters - two youngsters in their early teens - as they trek across the frozen wilderness to rescue their father after his plane crashes during an emergency mission.

Heston enjoyed the experience of working for his son, but takes care to say that his part in "Alaska" was suggested by someone outside the family - a top executive at Castle Rock Entertainment, who called to ask if he'd mind playing the villain of the story.

Heston replied by listing a few of the bad guys he'd portrayed in the past - Cardinal Richelieu in "The Three Musketeers," pirate Long John Silver in "Treasure Island," the autocratic Henry VIII, and a "rather tough CIA director" in "True Lies," among others - and concluded that he wouldn't mind playing another one. "I've done a few of them before," he says with a smile.

Filming on location

As for the prospect of flying to inhospitable places in the extreme North, he welcomed the opportunity to let authentic backdrops enhance his performance, as very different places have done in past movies.

"When we filmed 'El Cid' we found a city on the Mediterranean with walls and gates and a castle," he recalls. "And that kind of location can give you a reality that you then don't have to act. I rode through the gates in front of 1,000 mounted knights, got off a horse, climbed up an 11th-century staircase to a crenelated wall, looked down and saw 2,000 people screaming, 'Cid, Cid, Cid.' After that, I know what it's like to take a city. I have taken a city! You don't have to act something like that, you just are there."

This doesn't mean he takes the craft of acting lightly, and he feels a special responsibility when portraying a character drawn from real life. "I've played more historical characters than any actor I can think of," he says. "I have to strive to get inside someone like Moses or Richelieu or Brigham Young, and I do research and read biographies and extant papers, if there any."

By contrast, playing a make-believe person like the poacher in "Alaska" gives him more opportunity to express his own personality.

"Ben-Hur was fictional," he notes, recalling the title character of his 1959 historical epic, "and playing him I realized that for once I didn't have to be Michelangelo or Andrew Jackson or Thomas Jefferson or any of those guys. I'd already researched 1st-century Rome and Judea for other parts, so I thought ... why can't I just be me in these clothes and places and scenes? I did it that way, and it was me, because I saw no reason not to be me."