The death of Charlton Heston represents a great loss for American art. It’s possible to imagine other fine actors of his era playing the roles Heston made unforgettable, but it’s not possible to imagine the other actors making them unforgettable. From Moses to Judah Ben-Hur to George Taylor and all the rest before and after, Heston uniquely combined physical grace, a superb physique, that resonant voice, a commanding presence, and a great actor’s total commitment to the part.
Heston sought to set it all down in his autobiography In the Arena. It is the rare Hollywood memoir without a salacious component. Heston’s wife and family make appearances on virtually every page of the book. One of the book’s highlights is Heston’s recollection of his work preparing for the chariot race in “Ben-Hur.” Heston had gone to Rome several weeks before shooting was to begin in order to work on a practice track. “I had to learn to drive the chariot,” Heston recalled. “I’d long since realized the crucial importance of learning the physical skill you need for a part before the play goes into rehearsal or the film starts.”
Stuntman and second unit director Yakima Canutt was responsible for the orchestration of the chariot scene. He obtained more than a hundred horses to make up the eight teams, with backups. Heston describes the care Canutt devoted especially to picking Ben-Hur’s white horses and Messala’s black horses for the scene, as well as their training and the selection of the stuntmen to drive them. Heston recalls training at least two hours a day for six weeks with the four teams of white horses Canutt had picked for him.
“Over the weeks Yak made me into a modestly competent charioteer,” Heston acknowledged, and yet he still fretted that his skills were not adequate to the scene. “Y’know, Yak, I feel pretty comfortable running this team now, but we’re all alone here. We start shooting this sucker in ten days. I’m not so sure I can cut it with seven other teams out there.” Heston finishes the story:
Yak looked at me and pushed his cap back on his head. “Chuck, you just make sure y’stay in the chariot. I guarantee yuh gonna win the damn race.”
Heston told that story when he came out to Minnesota to speak on behalf of Republican senate candidate Rod Grams in the fall of 1994. Heston advised Rod that he would win the damn race if he stayed in the chariot. Rod stayed in and won.
In the last chapter of his autobiography Heston tells a story deriving from his appearance in Minnesota on behalf of Grams. In the course of his remarks on behalf of Grams, Heston said: “We have to get back to the values and perceptions of those wise old dead white guys who invented this country.” Grams’s hapless opponent and her friends in the media tried to create a brouhaha out of the remarks, as Heston recalls, branding him with what he calls “the familiar P.C epithets.” Heston had moved on to appear on behalf of another Republican candidate outside Minnesota before the controversy erupted, but he took the time to tape a response:
“Let’s see now,” I said, “they were wise, they were old, thery’re dead, they were white guys, and they invented this country. Which word in that sentence don’t you understand?”
I think it’s fair to say that we shall not look upon his like again.
JOHN adds: Some years ago, my family had a “brush with fame” moment when we were in London. Charlton Heston was appearing in a play there, and we were staying at the same hotel. One night he held the door for us as we left the hotel. Heston’s eyes twinkled as he watched my sizable gang go by. I was too tongue-tied to tell him how much I admired his work, both thespian and political. Afterward I asked my kids if they’d recognized the man who held the door for us. They were too young for Heston’s name to mean anything to them, until I explained that he was the guy who drove the chariot in Ben-Hur.
Charlton Heston was a great man and a life-long model of civic engagement, from his early days as a civil rights activist to his later championing of the Second Amendment.