When Charlton Heston learned in July of 2002 that he had a neurological disorder with symptoms that resembled Alzheimer's disease, he delivered the news in a typical Heston manner. ( AP )
He videotaped a farewell speech and released it to the media, ending it with a touch of Shakespeare's farewell for Prospero in "The Tempest":
"We are such stuff, as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep."
In October of 2002, looking frail, he made an appearance at a meeting of his beloved National Rifle Association in Manchester, N.H. A friend handed him a flintlock, which Heston held over his head in a customary pose. He challenged his enemies to pry the rifle "from my cold dead hands."
Even in affliction, he hadn't lost that Heston bearing.
I began covering Heston shortly after his arrival in Hollywood in 1952. He was an articulate young fellow, always friendly and outgoing. In one interview, he commented that producers didn't see him as a 20th-century man.
"All the good modern parts go to Jack Lemmon or Cary Grant," he complained mildly.
"When you see Jack Lemmon at the beginning of a picture walking down the halls of a big office building," he said, "you immediately believe him as a junior executive of a corporation. When you see me on horseback in chain mail, they seem to believe that I belong there."
When Heston was filming the Moses epic "The 10 Commandments," he commented on the restrictions ordered by the director, Cecil B. DeMille: "When I'm on the set in my costume and makeup, I cannot sit down, read a newspaper, use a telephone or give interviews. I don't smoke anyway, so that isn't a problem. De Mille has twofold purposes: 1. to make others on the set get the illusion I am Moses; and 2. to make me feel like Moses."
Heston said that he did a great deal of research on every historical figure he portrayed.
"The responsibility is a great one," he observed. "After all, Moses figures in three of the world's great religions. You have to be prepared to answer questions of all of them concerning the interpretation of Moses' life."
Heston's films were not all ancient history. Many were contemporary: "The Private War of Major Benson," "Soylent Green," "Airport 1975," "Earthquake," "Two Minute Warning," Midway," etc.
Some of Heston's movies were bombs, but he continued a heavy schedule. He had nothing but scorn for picky young stars like Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, who sometimes went a year or more without making a movie.
"I think they're wrong," Heston remarked. "I think they are making a mistake by being so exclusive. An actor is like any other artist; he has to grow, to mature. There's only one way you can do that - by acting."
Heston added: "An actor differs from other artists in one respect. A writer or a painter can continue practicing in private; if they don't like what they have written or painted, they can stow it in a closet. An actor is not so fortunate. Whatever he does has to be seen by people. That means he will be criticized for his mistakes. But he has to keep acting or he will never progress."
Heston wrote three books: "The Actor's Life; Journals 1956-1976," "Beijing Diary" (1990) and an autobiography, "In the Arena" (1995). He concluded the latter book with an amalgam of quotes from famous Americans, not unlike the amalgam of famous characters that was the actor himself: "I have a dream. I refuse to accept the end of man. I believe he will endure. He will survive. Man is immortal, not because alone of God's creatures he has a voice, but because he has a soul a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. About America and Americans, this is particularly true. It is a fabulous country, where miracles not only happen, they happen all the time. As a nation, we have, perhaps uniquely, a special willness of the heart."