From Our Files: An Interview with Charlton Heston
In 1959, the Monitor interviewed Charlton Heston, who died on Saturday, April 5. Heston won the 1959 Best Actor Oscar for the role in 'Ben-Hur.'
From the November 4, 1959 edition of The Christian Science Monitor
No matter how you look at Charlton Heston, who wheels a chariot 35 miles an hour in Ben-Hur, he is quite an eyeful. In costume, his white teeth gleaming and his face taut with expression, he makes a superlative movie actor. His private character is a mixture of candor, pride, and personality.
Some MGM publicity man got the idea that since chariot racing is a sport - or was back in Ben-Hur's day - that no self-respecting historian of the sports arena could possibly resist the opportunity to interview Charlton.
Five sports writers showed up yesterday at the Ritz-Carlton and met a man who wanted to be an actor since he was a little boy and once played end for Northwestern.
"I was a college freshman," Heston confessed, "and since I'd played football in high school it seemed only logical to try football at Northwestern. The varsity quarterback that year was Otto Graham. But after we'd scrimmaged Graham and his playmates a few times I decided I might not live long enough to be an actor. In two words, I quit."
Asked to describe chariot racing, Heston said it was both rough and demanding. He still has calluses on his hands from gripping four sets of reins and he spent five weeks with Hollywood stunt man Yakima Canutt learning to pilot a team of horses before shooting even began. He had a double for the distance shots but the closeups he did himself.
COULDN'T BELIEVE IT
"I had ridden before," Heston said, "but handling four powerful horses while standing erect in a half-ton chariot was something entirely foreign to me. The toughest part was learning to skid around the turns and if you looked back there was always a horse at your shoulder.
"At first I couldn't believe it when Bill Wyler, our director, told me it was impossible to overturn - that the chariots had been designed not to lift. But he knew what he was talking about and those that do flip in the picture had to be specially rigged with a powder charge.
"Actually the stance I assume when I'm driving," Chuck explained, "is almost like that of a skier. It gets pretty crowded, too, with nine of us racing and the wheel hubs of most of the chariots are equipped with steel knives.
"When a rival driver puts his hub against your oak spokes, even though they are three inches thick, it take sonly about half a lap to break through. Back in those days the boys really played for keeps."
Heston handles a press conference extremely well. He looks straight at you when he speaks and he give it the informal touch by asking questions himself.
WEIGHT A PROBLEM
Weight for him, he said, is a problem. He works out every day in the gym, even when he's traveling, and often plays four or five set of hard tennis. He spend most of his free time on the coast with his wife and four-year-old son, but he has an apartment in New York and 1,400 acres of woods and fields in Michigan.
You get the impression that Chuck likes his work and that he'll tackle just about anything. Football scares him, he says, but he likes baseball and roots for the Milwaukee Braves.
Standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 206 pounds, Heston makes an imposing picture. He was born in 1926, the year MGM released its first version of Ben-Hur.
Is the present picture any better? "Well," said Chuck, "it took 11 months to shoot and it cost a lot more." It was the first time he resorted to acting all afternoon.