Monday, April 7, 2008

A collect call from Moses

Charlton Heston, who passed away this weekend at the age of 84, was an actor of epic accomplishment, a man who didn't just appear in movies but conquered them as if they were spacious new territories. Most of the appreciation pieces that have appeared since the announcement of Heston's death rightly have downplayed the man's leadership in the National Rifle Association and more appropriately have noted that he was the kind of actor for whom grandly scaled movies could well have been invented.

Heston also might have had the greatest scowl in the business, whether he played a furious Moses scorning hard-partying Hebrews for returning to revelry while he climbed Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, a disillusioned detective in the dystopian slums of "Soylent Green" or an embittered astronaut in "Planet of the Apes." The man could do sarcasm. He could do disdain. He could look down from the high peaks of history on lesser screen gods.

I had only one contact with Heston, and it did not come at one of his best moments. In 1980, Heston appeared in "The Mountain Men," a movie written by his son Fraser Clarke Heston. The elder Heston played an aging trapper in search of pelts. Let's just say that this was no "Ben-Hur" or even a "Ben-Fur," but someone called and asked if I wanted to speak to Heston. Of course I did. Who wouldn't want to talk to a guy who had been directed by Cecil B. DeMille ("The Ten Commandments"), Orson Welles ("A Touch of Evil"); Anthony Mann ("El Cid") and Carol Reed ("The Agony and the Ecstasy")?

I'd be lying if I told you that I remembered the conversation, but I do recall how it began. I was sitting at my desk at the Rocky Mountain News -- in a building that since has been demolished to make way for new courtrooms and a jail -- when the phone rang.

"Is this Robert Denerstein?"


"I have a collect call from Charlton Heston."

Before I could remind myself that Heston probably had associated himself with a no-budget movie that needed a boost, I blurted out these impolitic words:

"You mean to tell me Moses is calling collect?"

I accepted the call, not knowing whether Heston had heard me. If he did, he didn't bring it up during the interview, which I appreciated.

Like many others, I also appreciated Heston's performances, many of which seemed to have been chiseled from Italian marble. The guy was solid, but to his credit, there also seemed to be a little craziness behind those blazing eyes. So when we remember Heston -- and we will -- it might also be wise to recall Gloria Swanson's aptly put line from "Sunset Boulevard." The pictures do seem to have gotten smaller.

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