The real Charlton Heston

His son remembers

Created date

August 28th, 2017
Photo montage of Charlton Heston on movie sets and with family.

Photo montage of Charlton Heston on movie sets and with family.

Charlton Heston is one of history’s most recognizable Hollywood figures. His starring roles in such films as The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), and Planet of the Apes (1968) made him a household name and face. 

Now, his son wants to introduce the world to the man he knew as “Dad.” An accomplished producer and director in his own right, Fraser Heston recently spoke with the Tribune about his father’s off-screen life, which is the subject of the upcoming documentary Charlton Heston: The Man in the Arena.

Tribune: What do you think people envision when they hear the name Charlton Heston?

Heston: The popular impression of my father is generally based on two iconic images: the first is dad as Moses [The Ten Commandments], holding up a staff and parting the Red Sea; the other is NRA [National Rifle Association] President Charlton Heston, holding up a Kentucky flintlock and saying, “From my cold, dead hand.”

That’s why this documentary is so important to me. I want to show people the real and complete Charlton Heston—not just the actor but the husband, father, war veteran, and civic activist.

Tribune: Let’s start with Charlton Heston, the father. 

Heston: I won the parent lottery when I was born. I had two “Greatest Generation” parents with strong Midwestern values. Dad and my mom Lydia were both warm, loving people who were devoted to their family.

Dad in particular taught my sister Holly and me to always do our best and keep our promises. Those were his two mantras for us. 

And he lived those values: He was impeccably honest and responsible; he always showed up to the set prepared and on time.

Tribune: Did your father’s career as a movie star interfere with his duties as a parent?

Heston: No, Dad had a good sense of balance. He believed that one’s work commitment came first, but at the same time, he bent over backward to involve us in his life.

For example, the family dinner hour was sacrosanct in our house. My mom, dad, sister, and I ate together as a family every night at seven o’clock. 

Despite his demanding work schedule, Dad always had time to read me Treasure Island before bed. When he was away doing a film, he would fly home for the weekend to be with us if he could, and we’d travel with him when school was out.

He was a true family man.

Tribune: Traveling with him, you must have spent a lot of time on movie sets. 

Heston: I loved being on the set as a kid. I can still remember Dad driving me around the Roman arena in a chariot during the filming of Ben-Hur and sitting on Sophia Loren’s lap when he was shooting El Cid (1961).

What boy wouldn’t love being around Roman gladiators and armored knights on horseback? 

Tribune: Your father’s filmography comprises a wide variety of genres. What motivated his choice of films?

Heston: His filmography is diverse: he made Biblical epics, westerns, and science-fiction films; big-budget movies and small-scale productions.

Throughout his career, he continually reinvented himself in different genres to avoid being typecast. And I think he enjoyed the challenge as an actor.

Tribune: He was very active off screen as an American citizen. Did you appreciate that as a youngster?

Heston: I definitely recognized and admired it. 

During World War II, he flew bombing missions as a radio gunner over the northern islands of Japan. I used to say to him, “Dad, anyone who served in World War II should have a ‘get out of public service free card’ for the rest of his or her life.” 

He didn’t see it that way. He believed in the Constitution and the rights of rank-and-file Americans. 

He worked for civil rights, supported Dr. Martin Luther King, and led the NRA because he believed in defending the Constitution. He believed that everyone is equal under the law and that the Second Amendment gives American citizens the right to bear arms. 

He also believed that it’s our responsibility as Americans to protect these rights.

Tribune: You’ve been quite successful as a filmmaker yourself. How did your father help prepare you for such a competitive field?

Heston: Because of his profession, I basically had access to a free film school. I spent my childhood hanging out on movie sets and got a firsthand look at how motion pictures are made. 

This inspired my passion for cinema. 

On a more personal level, my father instilled in me a strong work ethic, which is extremely important no matter what business you’re in.

Tribune: You directed your father in a number of films, including Treasure Island (1990). Was the transition from father/son to actor/director challenging?

Heston: No, it was fantastic. Working with Dad, I learned that he was as easy to get along with professionally as he was personally.

He would make creative suggestions, but he never got miffed when I didn’t follow them. He didn’t let his ego get in the way of the project. 

In fact, he made it clear to me that I was at the helm, that I was the person getting paid to make directorial decisions. That humble, highly professional attitude, in part, defined him as a person.

Tribune: What is his legacy, not as an actor, but as an American citizen?

Heston: He embodied Kennedy’s wonderful line: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

It’s worth remembering that he voted for Kennedy and, in those days, was a Democrat. Public service was very important to Dad. 

We live in a country where people are allowed, even encouraged, to openly defend their beliefs. That’s what dad did, and that’s what he would want others to do.

What is your favorite Charlton Heston movie and why? Tell us below in the comments section.