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HESTON, CHARLTON: Hamlet

THE PLAYER KING

He's played Moses, God, Kings, Presidents and Ben Hur. Politics aside, he remains one of the most charismatic film stars of his generation. In Kenneth Branagh's take on Hamlet, Heston is only on screen for a short time, but when you're watching him, there's no mistaking his star power. In this exclusive interview, Heston talks to Paul Fischer.

There's no mistaking the voice: there'll only be one Charlton Heston, or 'Chuck' to his friends. Continually in the public eye as a spokesman for America's anti-gun control lobby, Heston is also an actor who feels he is a far better actor today than he was in his hey day. "There's no doubt I could do Moses better now if given a chance. I've been doing this for over 50 years which surely makes me a far better actor today than I was in the beginning."

"There's no doubt I could do Moses better now if given a chance."

In Branagh's interpretation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Heston plays the Player King, a role never before played in its entirety in any previous screen version of the classic Shakespearian tragedy, and a role the actor was originally not interested in. "When Ken talked to me about doing this, I was hoping he might want me for Claudius, but when he suggested the Player King, I said: 'But he has nothing to do in the piece, hardly any dialogue'. He then told me he was going to do the complete text and that I should have another read of it. He was right."

"When Ken talked to me about doing this, I was hoping he might want me for Claudius.."

Heston is the only member of the film's American cast with any experience doing Shakespeare, a point he concedes all too happily. "Shakespeare requires a certain tone and lilt, without that, it sounds odd. It's unfortunate that actors who are so used to the movies, Jack Lemmon for instance, agreed to do this without really knowing how to use the Shakespearian language properly."

"Shakespeare requires a certain tone and lilt, without that, it sounds odd."

Heston, who himself directed a screen adaptation of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra some 20 years ago, is gratified that the Bard is making a comeback. "His themes are so universal."

"Jack Lemmon for instance, agreed to do this without really knowing how to use the Shakespearian language properly."

Heston is one of the most enduring and charismatic film stars of his generation. His imposing stature and commanding voice--he played Moses in The Ten Commandments, after all--have lost little power over the years, but he admits that he is not fearless. His scariest career moment occurred during the filming of Ben-Hur, directed by William Wyler. "Willie Wyler dropped into my dressing room ten days into the shoot and said, 'Chuck, you have to be better for me in this part.' I have always been very confident about any part I did, but that was tough."

"Willie Wyler dropped into my dressing room ten days into the shoot and said, 'Chuck, you have to be better for me in this part.'" Heston on playing Moses in The Ten Commandments

He was born Charles Carter on October 4, 1923, in a suburb of Chicago, at Evanston Community Hospital, to Russell Whitford Carter and Lilla Charlton. When he was ten, his parents divorced. His mother later remarried. His stepfather's name was Chet Heston. He enjoyed high school, but regrets that he did not make more of it. "I was a hick kid from the woods who didn't really fit in there until I discovered the drama program. Unhappily, since I have a strong mnemonic faculty, it was easy for me to slide through to the easy Bs. If I'd really worked, I could have gotten an education you can't get in some colleges now. But high school led me to my career. It was where I first studied acting."

"I was a hick kid from the woods who didn't really fit in there until I discovered the drama program."

His work in theatre won him a scholarship to the School of Speech at Northwestern University, where he met Lydia, his wife of fifty-plus years. He finessed his way into a small part on Broadway in Katharine Cornell's stage production of Antony and Cleopatra. His dream project would be to remake his largely unsuccessful 1973 film version of Antony and Cleopatra, which he directed. "Cleopatra may be unplayable because it's the greatest woman's part--there's just too much of her." His film roles have been larger than life, from Moses in The Ten Commandments, to Ben Hur, Heston's large frame and rich voice have done him well in his career. He has a lot of good things to say about fame. "It has complicated my life a little, but not enormously. I had to learn to be a public person, but fame has given me a good deal of control over my career, which I otherwise would not have had. Also, I've had the chance to work with some extraordinary men and women."

"It has complicated my life a little, but not enormously." Heston on fame

Asked to reflect on his extraordinary career, he chooses to pick a favourite film. "How can I? My career's got a hell of a long way to go yet."

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Charlton Heston as The Player King


"My career's got a hell of a long way to go yet." on being asked to pick his favourite film role

See Reviews and Louise Keller explores the background to how the film was made in Features







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