Fraser Heston knows that there are two specific scenes that define his late father, Charlton Heston’s, decades-long Hollywood career. The first comes from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 biblical spectacle, The Ten Commandments, where Heston’s Moses presents his followers with the stone tablets listing the heaven-sent commandments and tells them: “Who is on the Lord’s side, let him come to me.” The second occurred four decades later in 2000 when Heston closed his speech at the National Rifle Associations’s annual convention by hoisting a rifle in the air and saying, “From my cold dead hands!” “Those are the two images of my father that most often come to peoples’ minds,” the younger Heston tells Yahoo Entertainment. “It’s interesting, because there’s almost a half-century of filmmaking and activism between them, but they often think, ‘OK, he went from this to that.’” (Heston died in 2008.)
Both of those images are newly relevant, albeit for very different reasons. The Ten Commandments is celebrating its 65th anniversary as a perennial Easter and Passover favorite with a theatrical re-release via Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies on March 28 and 31, as well as a new 4K Ultra HD release from Paramount on March 30. Meanwhile, America’s epidemic of gun violence is once again in the headlines following mass shootings in Atlanta, Ga. and Boulder, Colo. At the same time, the NRA — for which Heston served as president and spokesman between 1998 and 2003 — has recently filed for bankruptcy amidst administrative infighting.
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment before the Atlanta and Boulder shootings, Heston’s son admits that his father’s big-screen legacy — as well as his progressivism on racial issues during the Civil Rights era — was complicated by his off-screen association with the NRA. “I think he did pay a cancel culture price for that political choice, though they hadn’t coined that term yet. From a purely career standpoint, it hurt him and today it would be seen by the Hollywood elite as anathema. But he felt strongly that he was supporting the Constitution: not only the Second Amendment, but also the First, Fourth and Fourteenth and so on. He was so proud that he took part in the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and they all linked hands, and he led the arts contingent up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That meant a lot to him.”
Fraser says his father would still support the NRA today, even with the organization’s well-documented internal troubles. “But he wasn't an extremist,” he says pointedly. “He wasn't a gun collector, and he wasn't a gun nut. It was a point of principle for him, and it was something that he certainly never regretted. He felt very strongly that the Constitution was what made America free, and if you erode any part of it, the rest of it starts to go. Obviously, there's an awful lot of people that feel that that's happening, and I think he would be appalled at some of the attacks on the Constitution that are happening nowadays.”
Asked how he feels about the thought of extremists — like those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 — using his father’s “cold, dead hands,” speech as a rallying cry, Fraser says that was a case where his showman instincts took over. “He knew his audience, and his audience was the NRA, so he knew that line would bring the house down. He knew very well what he was doing, and what he did for the NRA — which is kind of overlooked — is that he brought them together. Because the NRA is first and foremost a lobbying organization: a group of people who believe that certain political outcomes are preferable. Their purpose is to represent their members. But he didn’t side with any idiotic behavior. There are always idiots and extremists on both sides, and you can’t let that destroy your vision of what this country has been and what it can be.”
There’s another moment where Charlton’s twin career as an actor and a guns rights activist intersected. In the early 2000s, documentary filmmaker and NRA member, Michael Moore, showed up on the actor’s doorstep requesting an interview for his documentary, Bowling for Columbine. The resulting conversation proved immediately controversial, as Moore asked Charlton to address America’s high rates of gun violence and apologize for attending NRA rallies in Flint and Columbine following deadly shootings in both cities. Eventually, the actor walked out of the interview.
“He realized the interview was an ambush about halfway through and ended it,” his son says now. “And he always defended Moore’s First Amendment rights. People told him, ‘You could sue him for defamation, because he twisted facts to make you look worse.’ And he would say, ‘No, I don’t give a s*** about that. He always had interviews that went really well, and interviews that went badly. That one didn't go so well for him, but he got over it.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Fraser — who directed his father in a 1990 adaptation of Treasure Island — shares behind-the-scenes secrets from the making of The Ten Commandments, and what his father would have thought about our current reckoning with the movies of the past.
Yahoo Entertainment: You appear as Baby Moses in The Ten Commandments. How did that cameo come about?
Fraser Heston: DeMille had promised Dad that if he and my mom [Lydia Clarke] had a boy, I could play the role of Baby Moses. So when I was born, my mom got a telegram from DeMille, that said, "Congratulations. He's got the part. Love, C.B." When we actually did the scene, Dad was in a water tank on the Nile River set, which I believe is now the parking lot of Paramount Studios that you see when you walk through the front gate. The basket they had made actually began to sink, and Dad was there in a bathing suit to supervise. By law, they also had to have social workers on set for children, and she got out there first and grabbed me before the basket sank. Dad had started to grab me as well, and she said, "Oh, no, Mr. Heston. By law, I'm the only one that can handle a child." And he looked at her with the voice of Moses and said, "Give me that baby." [Laughs] Not surprisingly, she did so! Those were the two family tales that were oft told around the fire when I was a kid. I became more aware of Dad as a movie actor when he was making Ben-Hur. We were there in Rome, and I used to hang around the set. Dad would say, “Are you getting tired, son? Do you want to go home?” And I said, “No, Daddy, I want to stay and watch movies.” I guess it’s no coincidence that I became a filmmaker.
Your dad’s career was defined by Moses in many ways. Did he recognize that at the time?
I don’t know if he did: If you look at his journals, you can see that he felt it didn’t put him over the top yet. I think Ben-Hur did that for him: That’s a modern epic, and The Ten Commandments is a Cecil B. DeMille epic, and those are two very different things while also equally successful. He won an Academy Award for Ben-Hur and was taken more seriously as an actor after that one. With The Ten Commandments, it was DeMille who was the star, rightfully enough. Every few years, there's a whole generation of kids that hasn't seen it and even in this day of computers and Marvel movies, it’s still pretty cool to see DeMille doing stuff with opticals and hanging mattes and miniatures and running film backwards and doing all kinds of fabulous tricks to part the Red Sea.
It’s interesting that DeMille drew on a variety of sources to flesh out his telling of the Exodus story, including the Qur’an.
Yes, it was a modern notion of including various religious viewpoints into what is first and foremost thought of as a Judeo-Christian event. He read as many sources as he could and took that scholarship angle very seriously. Of course, he had the luxury of knowing that he was going to make the movie months and months, if not years, in advance. So he could hire researchers, and he could have all kinds of time to do his background research. There's an interesting story: When they were shooting the Exodus sequence in Egypt — which, along with the parting of the Red Sea, is one of the most remarkable scenes in film history — they had thousands of extras who were Muslims. As Dad would walk through the set, he could hear them murmur behind him “Musa, Musa, Musa.” [Moses is identified as Musa in the Qur’an.] He’s a prophet revered by three religions, and my dad said that was really moving.
There’s a longstanding rumor that Fidel Castro appeared as an extra in the film. Any truth to that?
I doubt it — I don't think the logistics worked very well for that. I also heard that he was a pitcher for the New York Yankees, and I don't think that's true either. [Laughs] That always happened with my dad. There was a persistent legend that someone was killed during the chariot race in Ben-Hur, which is totally untrue. The other one is that there’s a jeep on the horizon in one of the battle scenes in El Cid. These things have an apocryphal life of their own, I think.
The movie has been interpreted as a Cold War parable over the decades. Was that part of DeMille’s purpose in making it?
I've heard that as well. Obviously, DeMille was a fervent anti-Communist, but I don't believe that it was something that was openly discussed by anyone. And if you'd asked my dad, I think he would've said they had no awareness of it. Although the themes are legitimately similar: freedom versus tyranny was an important thing back in the '50s as well as at the time of Moses. So I think you can draw a lot of parallels between DeMille's politics and the nature of that story, but I don't think DeMille tweaked the story very much. But you can make of it what you will, which is part of why the film is wonderful.
We’re having a larger national conversation right now about how we watch and evaluate older Hollywood movies, including on TCM. What do you think your father would make of those discussions?
I think he would welcome anyone re-looking at some of these old films and let them judge them how they will. I don't think he would be in favor of the cancel culture aspect of that, or of revising some of these classics. It's a part of our history, and it's important that we're aware of that. But you're not going to put The Ten Commandments into the same category as Birth of a Nation — although I once had a long conversation with a reporter who felt fervently that DeMille should be in the same class as D.W. Griffith, because they both came from that age.
One film of his that would be reconsidered now is Touch of Evil, where he plays a Mexican character.
Yeah, you wouldn't see that today. In those days, it was more about who the actor was, and was he a good actor than what race he was. That kind of thing is already creating a lot of complications, because if you have a Native American actor playing a Canadian First Nations person, is that acceptable? It kind of limits your options to a great degree in casting, if you carry it too far. But it's kind of funny watching him play a Mexican, with a skinny mustache and a bad suit. And I think Orson [Welles] is really the star of that movie. The studio thought they were a making a quick B-movie, and then Dad convinced them to let Orson direct it. He paid the price for it afterwards, when Orson got mad at him for not standing up for his editorial rights, or what you will. I think his attitude about the movie today would have been, “If people want to see it, let them see it. If they’re offended by it, they shouldn’t see it. Let them judge.”
One scene in The Ten Commandments where DeMille ran into the limitations of the time was the “golden calf” orgy sequence. As I understand it, he had to be careful in how he depicted sexuality.
According to Dad, one of the female dancers had been toiling in the mud for three days too many, while they were taking the orgiastic writhing as far as they could go. And finally she turned to the assistant director and said, “Who do I have to screw to get off this picture?” That scene was also parodied so well by Mel Brooks in History of the World, Part 1, where Moses comes out, says, “The Lord has given unto you these 15...” And then he drops one and goes “10 commandments.”
I don’t know if you saw it, but this year’s CPAC event featured a golden Donald Trump statue.
[Laughs] I didn't see that, but that's hysterical. Was that done ironically, or without awareness of the irony? At least it wasn't on the body of a golden calf. That would've been a bit over the top. Well, Trump is always over-the-top!
Along with political commentary, some have also taken note of the homoeroticism that seems to exist in The Ten Commandments and movies like it.
What’s that joke from Airplane? “Hey kid, do you like to watch gladiator movies?” [Laughs] It’s not really a gladiator movie, but same kind of genre. You have a bunch of hunky, young guys who are looking pretty buff and wearing togas, loincloths and sandals and waving swords and staffs — large phallic symbols — around. You can certainly go there with it, and plenty of people have. There was a famous argument put forward by Gore Vidal, who did a rewrite of Ben-Hur, that he had intended for a homoerotic subtext to be there. The way Dad looked at it, and certainly the way I look at it is, if that's what you see, that’s fine. But there wasn’t anything overtly discussed about it. It wasn’t a dark secret or something like that. If you did that today, it would be celebrated, and that’s fine because homoeroticism is a lot more openly acceptable and Dad, who was quite socially liberal, would accept that as well. And, by the way, some of those actors were gay in real life. But gay actors can play straight men, and straight men can play gay characters, as we’ve seen.
Supposedly Yul Brynner bulked up to play Ramses after he learned he’d be acting opposite your dad. Were they competitive in that way on set?
No, that’s the first I’ve heard of that. It’s quite possible. Yul looked pretty good in that movie, went around with his shirt off a lot, so that was a probably a good idea. And maybe DeMille encouraged it too. Physical fitness was a big part of Dad’s regimen. He took it very seriously, and worked out almost everyday even into his 80s. But he had a real respect for Yul as an actor. He loved The King and I and thought Yul was fantastic in The Ten Commandments, which he is. You can’t imagine anyone else doing that role.
The Omega Man is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and it’s been on my mind after the year we’ve had.
That was one of the first plague films I went back to watch when the pandemic hit! It’s pretty hokey now, but for the period it was about right. It’s one of those modestly-budgeted ‘70s studio films, but it stands up. I love the idea that there's this plague and Dad's character has the first batch of the vaccine, but his helicopter crashes so he injects himself with it and is one of the few who are immune. Then they take his blood at the end, and use it to save the human race and there’s this Christ-like image. It's pretty darn prescient, actually. It’s interesting: Dad had a strong sense of environmentalism and supported a lot of environmental legislation in California, because as a hunter and a fisherman, he knew that these things are important to the survival of humankind.
Where would he stand on the climate change issue? Would he support a Green New Deal?
No, I don't think he would be for a Green New Deal; he would look for a centrist compromise, which I think is what we need to do, and not use it as a political football on either side of the aisle. He followed Ronald Reagan as president of the Screen Actors Guild. You don’t think of my dad as a union activist, but he would often sit down, and say: “As my pal, Ronnie Reagan said, 'Let us sit down and reason together.'" He supported a lot of Democratic candidates, even late in life. He would find somebody that he agreed with, and he would support them, and that's what was so remarkable. He wasn't as fixed in his ways as you might imagine. People think of him as an Old Testament father, because he played Old Testament roles, and he wasn't like that at all. He was a funny guy, and a very loving man. Even into my adulthood, he would send me little cartoons like Peanuts and Doonesbury that he clipped from the funny papers.
And, by the way, my mother was quite the character, too. (Clarke died in 2018.) She was the Indiana Jones of the family, not my dad. She dragged us to the Great Pyramid, Hadrian’s Wall and into the jungles of the Amazon. One of the great things about my childhood was the fact that we got to live and work in cultures where we were there long enough to learn to speak the language. I spoke Italian when I was a little boy, and I learned to speak Spanish from all those films — like El Cid and 55 Days at Peking — that we shot in Spain. I’ve come to appreciate that in a way that I didn’t when I was 10, and a lot of that is thanks to her.
The Ten Commandments will be re-released in theaters on March 28 and 31 from Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies; a new 4K Ultra HD release will be available March 30 on Amazon.
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