Most people will remember the late Charlton Heston for such larger-than-legend roles as Ben-Hur, “The Ten Commandments’ ” Moses, El Cid. Or for such sci-fi hits as “Soylent Green,” “The Omega Man” (remade last year with Will Smith as “I Am Legend”) and the original “Planet of the Apes.” (All together now, kids: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”)
But there was another side to the onscreen Heston: a less bombastic, less forceful, more vulnerable version, exemplified by his performance in a little-seen, less-remembered 1968 Western, “Will Penny,” in which he played a grizzled cowboy who realizes, far too late, the kind of life he might have led — if he’d been something other than a drifter. They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore, dang it.
Will Penny was one of Heston’s favorite performances too — or at least that’s what he told me on one of the occasions I interviewed him. Always a class act, Heston was never less than gracious, although I suspect he might have been especially amenable to chatting with a fellow Northwestern University alum. (It also couldn’t have hurt that I was well well acquainted with his sister, a legendary dramatic interp professor known to one and all on campus as Miss Heston.)
Miss Heston’s brother, in his later years, also delivered some wonderfully crafty supporting performances. I’m especially fond of his scheming Cardinal Richelieu in 1973’s “The Three Musketeers” — and his poignant Player King in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 “Hamlet,” in which an old trouper contemplates his farewell to the stage where he’s lived his life, as well as a few hundred others. A life spent on stage is evanescent, living on in audience’s memories, but a life spent on a soundstage is forever. At least for the larger-than-life yet down-to-earth likes of Charlton Heston.