My Week with America's King Lear: Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston: Ben Hur and his rifle.

Charlton Heston: Ben Hur and his rifle.

The Steven Weber Show was not successful at all. It did feature Chris Elliot, Amy Pietz and Wendell Pierce.

In an episode I directed, Charlton Heston guest starred along with Heidi Klum. This was one of the most surreal occasions of my directorial career. I’ll talk about Heidi another time.

Heston, known mostly in his later life as a five time president of the NRA, was more than his gun obsession. We are talking about Ben Hur, but also Moses, Michelangelo and more. Soylent Green remains one of my favorite cult sci-fi films.

But what Heston and I talked about when we were hanging around in his dressing room was neither guns nor his epic film roles. Instead, we talked about Orson Welles and TOUCH OF EVIL, a brilliant film that is now considered a classic.

Welles was the wonder boy behind CITIZEN KANE, of course. He was also a great Shakespearean actor and director. That is a rarity in America, where few have been able to scale the heights of Shakespeare on stage or film without looking foolish. Shakespeare has always been the stuff that separates the wannabes from the big leaguers. Year after year, stage and screen stars mount productions of Shakespeare so they can be “taken seriously”. Usually it’s a disaster (Keanu Reeves as Hamlet, anyone?).

Heston told me how he and Welles went to breakfast after the all nighter final shoot of TOUCH OF EVIL. At that breakfast Heston, then a powerful star and the only reason Welles got to make TOUCH at all, told Welles to cut the film from the point of view of Welles’ now iconic character Quinlan. Welles was ever grateful and it was a class move from Heston.

We finally got around to the question I had always wanted to ask Heston: as an actor who was classically trained and pretty damn adept at doing Shakespeare, why is it he never threw down and played King Lear on Broadway? Why not scale the heights?

Heston looked at me for a long time, then and asked how I knew he was such a Shakespearean. I told him as far as I was concerned, only he and Welles ever really owned Shakespeare in America. When he was at Northwestern University, Heston mounted a production of MACBETH on the steps of a campus library. Heston was pretty impressed I knew that.

Then came his answer: “Andrew, you’re right. I should’ve ended my acting career as King Lear. It’s something I will always regret. The truth is, I was scared.”

Here was THE OMEGA MAN telling me this.

I told him that if it made a difference, he was an inspiration to many of us who aspire to produce Shakespeare in America. He seemed happy to hear that.

We went our ways, Heston off to gun ranting and such, and I onto another show.

From Laurence Olivier to Ian McKellan and currently Anthony Hopkins, the lords of acting eventually grapple with the angry old king and his rage against the dying of the light.

Heston never did. Maybe his NRA folly was his way of living out his own real life Lear. The phrase “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hand” sounds a lot like King Lear.

The Weber Show cast: Amy Pietz, Steven Weber, Chris Elliot, Wendell Pierce.

The Weber Show cast: Amy Pietz, Steven Weber, Chris Elliot, Wendell Pierce.