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Charlton Heston, Richard Widmark: Tough guys, strong presences

Charlton Heston in "Soylent Green."

Recently we lost two American actors who embodied widely different styles, and their passing is a reminder that the very presence of an actor can suggest everything about a film.

Charlton Heston was tall, outward, masculine, exuding bravado, often cast in larger-than-life roles. Richard Widmark was lithe, inward, sardonic. Heston's characters stood on mountaintops and divided the Red Sea. Widmark's often lived in the shadows. Heston played some smaller roles, but there was always the danger he would be too big for them. Widmark often played mainstream roles, but was always more interesting when he was an outsider on the run.

Heston made at least three movies that almost everybody eventually sees: "Ben-Hur, "The Ten Commandments" and "Planet of the Apes" (1968). Widmark occupied smaller, darker pieces, and embodied film noir. Many filmgoers may not have seen "Night and the City" or "Panic in the Streets" (both 1950) or "Pickup on South Street" (1953), but if they have, they remember him. All the TV obituaries used that same clip of him pushing an old lady in a wheel chair down a flight of stairs in "Kiss of Death" (1947), his first film, but there was so much more than that.

Heston, raised on Chicago's North Shore, wanted to be an actor almost from the get-go, and made a 16-mm version of "Julius Caesar" in college. "We used all actual locations," he told me in a 1968 interview. "The steps of the Art Institute, the Elk's Temple, the Field Museum, the beaches of Lake Michigan. You would have sworn it was the real thing, except for the acting."

He was "tabbed for stardom," as they used to say, by Cecil B. DeMille, who cast him as him the ringmaster in "The Greatest Show on Earth." which many argue is the worst movie to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, and in 1956 established himself forever in DeMille's "The Ten Commandments." From then on he was often in epics of the sort called "towering," and began to be the victim of self-parody, even though he was always on pitch, and had the heft to carry roles others would have disappeared in. His firm authority makes "Planet of the Apes" (1968) a better film than many, including me, thought at the time.

Widmark's roles were in the middle, not the epic, range. He played cops, robbers, wise guys, military men, horror characters and cowboys, figuring importantly in some of John Ford's elegiac last films. His characters never saved the world, but they usually saved their own skin, and that was the point. He kept a low public profile, made few statements, endorsed few causes, retired so successfully some people were surprised, at the time of his death, that he was still alive. Why did the Academy never honor his lifetime achievement?

Heston was very public, very political (first liberal, then conservative), a willing spokesman for what he believed. In early days he led the charge against racist Hollywood hiring policies. In later years he was the voice of the National Rifle Association. It is always tragic when someone suffers from Alzheimer's, but his bravery and grace in publicly acknowledging his illness was dignified and touching.

What intrigues me about Heston is what he might have done had he never met the bombastic Cecil B. DeMille. Seek out a little film named "Will Penny" (1968), which he told me was his personal favorite, to see an entirely different side of his abilities. Or see him in Kenneth Branagh's 1996 "Hamlet," where he embodies the Player King with astonishing invention, transforming conventional ideas about the role.

Probably, DeMille or not, Heston would have found himself in roles of heroic stature; in an industry that focuses on appearances, he looked like the hero, not the best buddy. It took another larger-than-life figure, Orson Welles, to find a channel for that presence, in his "Touch of Evil" (1958).

Widmark stayed within a narrower, more realistic range. He told me in 1968 he treasured his work with the great John Ford in "Cheyenne Autumn" (1964) and "Two Rode Together" (1961). "I'm glad I got him as a director at all," he said almost wistfully. We were speaking at the time of the ascendency of James Bond, and he defended his own pure, straight-ahead film noir: "I have this kind of nostalgia for crime films," he said. "I think we've about exhausted the fancy angles and trick cigarette lighters. Hollywood developed the crime film almost into an art over the years, and it hurt me to see all that work thrown away on spoofs and put-ons."

If Widmark was guarded and private, Heston was outgoing, good company. I remember drinking with him one night at O'Rourke's, the legendary Chicago newspaperman's saloon. He was introduced to Mike McGuire, the military editor of the Chicago Tribune. "Ah, yes," he said. "You supported my policies in the 'Ben Hur' campaign."

Speaking of "Will Penny," he said, "It's one of my favorite roles, because it is real, you see, and not all faked up to make it nice. It even has an unhappy ending." Left unsaid was how many of his films such qualities did not apply to. "I always get the super-hero parts," he said. "That's one nice thing about 'Will Penny.' I'm just an ordinary cowboy, not Ben-Hur in the saddle."

Compared to today's superstars, who are so cosseted and idolized, actors like Heston and Widmark went at their craft full-bore, as solid professionals. They expected to be surrounded by supporting actors, did not monopolize a film, and were not marketed as the whole product.

Listen to the gassy profundity of so many of today's stars, analyzing their techniques, and then listen to Widmark describing why John Ford liked making Westerns: "He enjoys working in the fresh air." Or listen to Heston, describing how he mastered the art of Ben-Hur's chariot driving: "Actually, I played it by ear."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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