Known as much for the collection of historical figures he played on film, as for his public stance on various issues of Conservative politics, to others Charlton Heston will always be the lost astronaut tyrannized by talking apes. He was also a stage actor, a Shakespearean actor, and one of the pioneer actors of early television.
Less colorful and majestic of his later roles, his part as the manager in “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), his third film demonstrates Heston’s film presence. Playing opposite a basket of big-name stars and real circus professionals, all his character is, really, is just an administrator. He does not perform the stunts. He did not catch all the wild animals. But with his leather jacket and his fedora, he looks like an early Indiana Jones, striding from one trailer to another, too busy to romance Betty Hutton because the circus is in the blood and he has sawdust in his veins.
The Internet Movie Database website relates the story that the film’s director, Cecil B. DeMille spotted Heston on the studio lot, not knowing who he was. But when Heston waved to him, something in Heston’s personality made Mr. DeMille consider the young actor for the part of the circus manager.
Film stars have a curious, even dubious immortality. On the one hand, they are frozen in time, their abilities never diminished. But the films that keep them alive can also turn them into clichés. For a man with such varied film and stage experience, who also wrote about his career, who collected memorabilia from his films, one wonders at the irony that at the time of life when memories of his career should have been his comfort, he was likely stripped of most of them due to a wasting disease. When he announced his Alzheimer’s a few years ago, he rejected pity. How can one not pity?