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The Bell Curve:

Recalling the best of Heston

April 09, 2008|By Joseph N. Bell

Charlton Heston died Saturday, Moses and Ben Hur struck down by a disease that ravages mere mortals.

Reading his lengthy obituary sent me to my files for a look at my history with him that almost resulted in a collaboration on his biography. He wasn’t yet serving as poster boy for the National Rifle Assn. when that happened.

I would have had a tough time dealing with that phase of Heston’s life, played off against the Heston who related vigorously and with great good humor to the students in my film class at UCI three decades ago.

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That class examined the social impact of various types of motion pictures, and in the Western category, I chose a character study called “Will Penny” in which Heston played an aging cowboy, in direct contrast to the epic figures he’s mostly remembered for.

He came to my classroom — and later to my home — with easy candor and respect for his craft well-seasoned with frankness and humor.

That’s the Heston I like to remember — the one who once played an astronaut named Taylor who crashed on a distant planet ruled by English-speaking apes that clambered about the surrealistic backdrop of my campus for several weeks making a movie.

Heston did a nude scene — his first — in “Planet of the Apes,” and I found the notes of a conversation that so well caught his flavor that I had with him then about the growing frequency of nude scenes in movies and how he felt about being asked to do one.

He responded: “I have no idea why I’ve been selected to be the spokesman for the male nude. In ‘Planet of the Apes,’ the scene of my nudity was extremely important, and I would have fought like a tiger if there had been real opposition to leaving it in because it was essential to making the point of Taylor’s dehumanization. But I think it’s important to bear in mind that the male is never stripped naked for aesthetic reasons. The history of the female nude in films is happily a little longer and is often used for aesthetic effect — and I must say I’m in favor of it.”

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