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THE MOST AMERICAN MOSES EVER TO CLIMB THE MOUNTAIN

Still a marketable hunk when I interviewed him for The New York Times in 1977, Charlton Heston was clearly taking his real-life role as spokesman for the film industry as seriously as he would later take his role as president of the NRA.--GUY FLATLEY

 

At a fat-free 53, Charlton Heston is as miraculously in shape as he was when he flexed his muscles as the square-jawed, blue-eyed, all-American Moses in “The Ten Commandments,” the 1956 DeMille biblodrama that hurled him to the commercially sanctified top of the Hollywood mountain. Having staked his claim to movie immortality and weathered cycles of religious pomposities, historical travesties and such jet-age catastrophes as “Airport 1975,” “Earthquake” and “Two-Minute Warning,” Hollywood’s most venerated semi-elder statesman may be forgiven if a certain weary loftiness seeps into his voice when he assumes his official role as chairman of the board of the American Film Institute or austere apologist for the rating system of the Motion Picture Association of America.

Snugly stitched to the fabric of the movie-making establishment, Heston -- who served his apprenticeship playing Shakespeare and Shaw with Katherine Cornell – still feels the tantalizing tug of the stage, which is why he has undertaken the histrionically taxing, minimally lucrative role of the tormented, tyrannical James Tyrone in O’Neill’s “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which will begin previews tomorrow at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles.

“The stage is actors’ country,” proclaims Heston, speaking fervently from the movie capital of the world. “I’ve always felt the need to go back, to have my passport stamped. It would be a mistake to say there are no great films being made, but it is true that they do not offer roles like Macbeth or James Tyrone. Yet, when a stage production closes, it no longer exists the way a film does. If it were still possible to see Kean do ‘Richard III,’ probably nobody else would play the role, and if it were still possible to see Freddie March play James Tyrone, maybe I wouldn’t be playing him now.”

Heston is determined not to be daunted by the memory of his idol. “It is scary to follow the man who was the finest actor in America, but one of the definitions of a great role is that it is imperfecatble. There never was a perfect Hamlet and there never was a perfect Lear. It’s like climbing a mountain; guys have gotten to the peak before me. But I’m making a contract with myself to at least get above the snowline.”

Meanwhile, Heston’s movie career is dunking him below the waterline in “Gray Lady Down,” a contemporary calamity flick in which he suffers the agonizing inconvenience of being aboard a clumsy nuclear submarine that collides with a fog-bathed Norwegian freighter. The film, which also stars David Carradine, Stacy Keach and Ned Beatty, is scheduled to surface in the fall, at which time Heston will undoubtedly participate vigorously in promotional activities, in much the same manner that he performs his good-citizen chores for the film institute and the Motion Picture Association. “I am a highly visible doorman for the A.F.I,” he insists with touching modesty. “My main value there, as it was when I was president of the Screen Actors Guild, is that I can get on talk shows easier than anyone else.”

One of the urgent subjects he wants to talk about is the rating system, so much that he recently filmed a trailer for the Motion Picture Association in which he pays passionate praise to the sterling logic behind all those G’s, PG’s, R’s and X’s. “The ratings are a reasonable approach to giving the general public some idea of what the content of the film is, so that they’ll know if it’s something they want their kids to see. In the minds of a lot of people, Hollywood is where they make pornographic films, though you and I know those things are really made underground. I think there is a very real possibility of public pressure creating censorship, which is something nobody who believes in the Bill of Rights would feel comfortable with.”

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