Cecil B. DeMille told Charlton Heston that if his wife gave birth to a son before the director needed to shoot the baby-in-the-bulrushes scene for "The Ten Commandments," he would consider using him as the infant Moses. So when Fraser C. Heston was born in 1955 while the film was still in production, DeMille sent a telegram to Heston that read, "Congratulations. He's got the part."
If there's a better story about someone's first role, I haven't heard it.
Heston, who has his own production company--Agamemnon Films--seemed destined to have a career in the movies, and though he never pursued acting, he did become a screenwriter, director, and producer. Plus, he was able to work with his father on a number of occasions.
"The Ten Commandments" comes out in a beautifully restored version on Blu-ray tomorrow, and a brand-new 72-minute documentary, "Making Miracles"--exclusive to "The Ten Commandments" Blu-ray + DVD Combo Limited Edition Gift Set--features Heston in interviews and, at the end, holding the staff of Moses that DeMille gave his father to keep as a souvenir. His father always kept it in his study, and Fraser says "it was a part of my life."
DVD Town had the pleasure of interviewing Fraser Heston one-on-one about "The Ten Commandments," his famous father, and his own film career. And a few surprises popped out.
Plath: A making-of feature for "The Ten Commandments" Blu-ray shows your dad in swim trunks by the basket--very cool photo, by the way--making sure that everything was okay when you, as baby Moses, had to be "shot" afloat.
Heston: Well, it's a good thing he was there, because--I don't know if they mentioned this in the film-but the basket began to sink. Apparently the social worker who was assigned to look after little babies said, as I was beginning to float away down the Nile, she said, "Oh, no, Mr. Heston, I'm the only one who can pick up the child." And he turned to her with the voice of Moses and said, "GIVE me that child!"
Plath: (Laughs) Well, your dad does say on that feature that you were lying in about three inches of water, but it didn't seem to faze you . . . or did it. Why did you never act in any other pictures?
Heston: That's right. My in-front-of-the-camera debut.
Plath: And as far as I know, your only time in front of the camera.
Heston: I had a bit part in "Antony and Cleopatra" [1972, with Charlton Heston directing], which, oddly enough, we're also re-releasing and which was a film I was an assistant director on. An actor didn't show up one day and I had one line . . . but I got to act in a scene with my dad, which was fun. So you'll have to see that video to find it.
Plath: Did he give you any grief about that, your one time with him?
Heston: No, he asked me if I would do it, and I said, "Yeah, sure, it'd be fun." We were shooting that in Spain back in the Seventies and I just stepped in an played Third Sailor or something like that.
Plath: How old were you then?
Heston: I was about 16, 17.
Plath: Wow. Well, on this bonus feature you appear holding Moses' staff, which you said that Cecil B. DeMille gave your father after the picture wrapped.
Heston: Yes, he did. It's one of our most treasured family heirlooms.
Plath: You said your father always kept it in his study when you were growing up?
Heston: Yes, he did.
Plath: All right, tell the truth. Did you pretend-play with it with your friends when your parents weren't around or weren't looking? There's got to be at least one Stanley Cup story associated with that staff.
Heston: Oh, no, 'cause you never knew if it was "loaded" or not. Who knows what could happen with that staff (laughs).
Plath: (Laughs) Seriously? You never played with it?
Heston: No. I thought it was pretty cool. He had a lot of swords and other cool stuff we could play with.
Plath: So you did play with the swords, though.
Heston: Oh yeah. When I was a kid I had an outfit--and complete with weaponry and armor--for almost all of his big pictures. On "Ben-Hur" they made me a Roman centurion's outfit, complete with Roman short sword . . . all the way up through history. It was quite a wonderful way to grow up, I've got to say.
Plath: Did you save any of it?
Heston: Yeah, I think I still have the helmet from "El Cid" (1961).
Plath: Martin Shafer reportedly offered you $500 to write a first draft of the screenplay for the 1980 film "The Mountain Men," starring your father and Brian Keith. Is that a true story, or not?
Heston: Yeah, I think that's about right. I had actually written a novel called Wind River, and Martin thought it would make a pretty good movie, so he optioned it from me. And I wrote the script--wrote it very quickly in about two, three weeks--and they sent it off to Columbia Pictures and lo and behold it got made [as "The Mountain Men"]. I thought, Boy, that was easy. That's the easiest money I ever made. Of course, I had no idea how tough the film business really is (laughs). That was in like 1978, and here I am still slogging away.
Plath: You were on set for "The Mountain Men" and everything?
Heston: Oh, yeah. We had a great time. We shot it up in Wyoming--Jackson Hole, Yellowstone National Park. It was really, really exciting. We kind of got to live the mountain man experience to the full, as it were.
Plath: You and your dad?
Heston: Yeah. We worked together, as you know, a ton, and he was a great guy to work with, to hang out with. He was a very kind, compassionate, loving father, and a really good friend--not just to me, but to everybody that knew him. And it made it very easy to work with him professionally, even though I was his son. When I started directing him in films like "Treasure Island" (TV, 1990) and "The Crucifer of Blood" (TV, 1991) and so on, it was just a transition we made sort of seamlessly. We never had any difficulties over it, to be honest.
Plath: On "Mother Lode" (1982), which you were listed as the co-writer and co-producer . . . .
Heston: Actually, the sole writer. IMDb's got that wrong (laughs).
Plath: The SOLE writer. All right. But it also lists you as an uncredited director, working with your dad. Is that true?
Heston: No, no. IMDb is terrible, by the way. They get stuff mistaken ALL the time, and it's impossible to correct it. But no, I was not any kind of director on that picture. I was the producer, and my company financed it--Agamemnon Films, that was our first picture--and I wrote it.
Plath: So what was your first film directing, then?
Heston: First film directing was "Treasure Island," which I did with my dad and a young man named Christian Bale, whom you probably heard of . . . .
Plath: Uh, no (laughs). And how was it directing him. Did he take direction well from you?
Heston: As I say, he was such a good guy and we knew each other so well that it was easy to do with a very light touch. It didn't require a lot of drama to direct my dad. I could make a suggestion, I could make a forceful direction, and he would say, "Okay, you're the director, let's do it that way." And by the way, that wasn't just me. He was that way with everybody. Willie Wyler took him aside on the set of "Ben-Hur" one day after about a month of filming in their eight-nine month schedule and he said, "Chuck, I don't know how else to say this, but you need to be better in this part. You can be better." And he said, "Well, Willie, what do I need to do? Just tell me." And he said, "If I knew, I'd tell you, it'd be easy, you'd just do it. All I know is you gotta dig deep and be better." That's probably the best piece of direction anybody ever gave my dad, because he did dig deep and, sure enough, it paid out pretty well and he wins the [Best Actor] Academy Award for it. But that's the kind of guy he was. He was very easy to direct.
Plath: Your dad directed "Mother Lode," then, right?
Heston: Yes he did.
Plath: Did you get a look at how he was behind the camera?
Heston: Oh sure. He was a terrific director. He directed "Antony and Cleopatra" as well, which is also coming out tomorrow, "Mother Lode" and . . . I think he directed three films altogether ["A Man for All Seasons," TV, 1988]. He was a great director because he loved actors and he understood them. He understood the language of film, of cinematic storytelling, which is really the director's job. He's sort of the storyteller, isn't he? I learned a lot watching him direct. I was in the cutting room for both of those films and learned a lot from our editor--Eric Boyd-Perkins, who'd been around since the David Lean films, since "Lawrence [of Arabia]" and "[Bridge on the River] Kwai."
Plath: When you say you learned a lot from your father, like what?
Heston: Well, I learned about how to block a scene, how to set up a master--because I never went to film school--and I learned a lot about how to direct actors, how to rehearse scenes, explore the dialogue, about the kind of seriousness and passion that my dad brought to the script and the acting . . . all of those things were kind of ingrained in me from an early age, so it was kind of easy, I think, for me to make that transition.
Plath: Watching him direct, do you think he learned anything from people like DeMille or Wyler?
Heston: Had to, absolutely. You work with some of the greatest directors of all time. I mean, he began his career with C.B. DeMille and ended it with Jim Cameron--pretty good stretch there, and some awfully good directors in-between, too.
Plath: Your father made more than 125 films and was fortunate enough to play the lead in three iconic ones: "The Ten Commandments," "Ben-Hur" (1959), and "Planet of the Apes" (1968). But I'm curious. Those are the films most people associate him with. Which films did you associate him with as you were growing up, and did your associations or your way that you viewed him change as you aged?
Heston: That's a good question. I think in my early years I thought of him in these big epics--like "El Cid" (1961) is another example--and as I grew older I became more and more aware of him as a movie actor, not just as a professional charioteer, for example. When he went on to do films like a little film like "Will Penny" (1968), that was, for him, I think, one of his personal favorites, in terms of his performance and the story, smaller film, but a lovely Western. He was very proud of that picture. I think "Apes," certainly, for me for the sci-fi pictures, and "Soylent Green" (1973), which is also being re-released . . . what else? Some of the other science fiction films that he made, that was exciting for me, because I was into science fiction at the time and into the Seventies. I thought that kind of became his oeuvre, if you will. And then I finally realized, when I was old enough to start working with him in--I think we shot "Mountain Men" in '79--that he was an extraordinarily versatile actor. He could switch from doing Shakespeare or playing Sir Thomas Moore to doing a Western or a science fiction part, or playing Long John Silver in "Treasure Island."
Plath: You've been quoted as saying that what struck you about your father's era in movie-making was the "club" atmosphere. Could you elaborate?
Heston: (Laughs). Well, I think what I meant by that is that everybody knew everybody--and I'm talking about the Fifties and Sixties. I think film generations change about every 10 or 20 years, obviously, and during the end of the studio era, which really came to a halt in the late Fifties, it was certainly a lot clubbier. You would just kind of say, "Well, what are we going to do next?" and somebody would have an idea, you would get so-and-so to direct, so-and-so to write the script, and it got made. And in the Seventies and Eighties it became a much more corporate venture, and I suppose that was inevitable--these companies are now owned by multi-national corporations, and, you know, we didn't even know who's in charge anymore. And now they're doing things like video games and stuff that really drives these big tent-pole multi-hundred million dollar budgeted movies. It's more impersonal, I think, now. But despite that, you still get films like "The King's Speech," which crop up every once in a while, don't they?
Plath: Oh yeah. Well, you know, I thought this making-of bonus feature for "The Ten Commandments" was really very good.
Heston: Oh, good. Wait till you see the one we did for "Ben-Hur." "Ben-Hur" is coming out I think in the fall. Warner Brothers restored "Ben-Hur" as well.
Plath: I didn't know that.
Heston: Yeah, and I produced that one--I produced the film that's called "Charlton Heston and Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey," and it's 85 minutes and it's got never-before-seen footage that my mother shot in 16mm of all the behind-the-scenes stuff of our life in a villa in Rome, all kinds of photographs nobody's ever seen, pages from my dad's journal and so on . . . it's pretty cool.
Plath: Fantastic. Did you ever get to go to some of the openings? You were born in '55, and "Ben-Hur" was '59 . . . .
Heston: I was too young for the big openings--the "Ben-Hurs" and "El Cids,"--obviously, but as time went on I did. You know, it's funny. People outside of Hollywood think, Oh, it's so glamorous, you get to go to these galas and these wonderful dinners. You know, that's work. That's hard work. As my dad often said, "That's what they pay you for. You do the acting for free."
Plath: I just remember being at the "Ben-Hur" opening in Chicago at one of the downtown theaters.
Heston: Do you really? Wow.
Plath: I've got the program still, and everything. It was quite the grand event.
Heston: That movie was really something, and in a way, look at the difference between "The Ten Commandments" and "Ben-Hur." They're both wonderful films, they both stand up, I think, really really well. But "Ten Commandments" was, in my view, the quintessential old-time Hollywood C.B. DeMille epic, right? It had thousands of extras, it had incredible special effects, it had a cast of stars--everybody from Yul Brynner to Edward G. Robinson, just an unbelievable cast, when you think of it--Vincent Price, Ann Baxter. I mean, all of them were big stars. And then you've got "Ben-Hur," which is a much darker, more modern epic, you know? It would stand up today if you re-released it and nobody'd seen it today, you would say, "Yeah, that's a proper modern epic film." So two very different styles of filmmaking, but only separated by two or three years. I think that was kind of the break-point there.
Plath: Now did you produce the making-of feature for "The Ten Commandments" too?
Heston: No. I was in it, but I did not produce it. It was produced and directed by my friend Laurent Bouzereau, who's also the director of the "Ben-Hur" film that I made. If you look him up, he's done every making-of feature and every documentary about film. He's made about 80 films, this guy. Very cool guy.
Plath: The guys who do the making-of features are kind of unsung, aren't they?
Heston: They're great. This guy, he's actually become a good friend. He's a little younger than me and grew up in Paris and just loved movies. He has forgotten more about films than I'll ever know, and is best friends with Steve Spielberg and all these people that he's kind of gotten to know all these years.
Plath: Did you have a normal childhood, growing up?
Heston: (Laughs) Well, I kind of won the parent lottery. My folks were great parents. My mother Lydia, who's still with us, lives in the same house she and my dad have lived in since the Fifties. And my sister, Holly. We got to travel all over the world, we got to work and live in countries that other people only visited as tourists--from Egypt to Rome to England, and, you know, England, Israel, and Mexico, and all these wonderful places--and, I think, more importantly, I got an exposure to the world of film from the inside out that I never could have gotten any other way, so I'll never be able to thank my parents properly for that.
Plath: Getting back to the original topic, when did you first realize that you were the baby in "The Ten Commandments"?
Heston: Because I was so young when it was done, it was just kind of in my consciousness as a little kid. There wasn't a point where they revealed this huge secret to me, and I just thought it was kind of a kick. I didn't think it was that big of a deal. I've come to realize what an honor it is to be a part of that piece of Hollywood heritage, which is, after all, our cultural heritage, isn't it? Films are one of our best exports next to freedom, and it's something I've very proud of.
Plath: All right, that was the only other thing I wanted to ask.
Heston: Outstanding. Thank you very much. Go look at my new website for my new film, "The Search for Michael Rockefeller." It's pretty cool, coming out in film festivals next month.
Plath: To wrap this up, did you want to tell me a little about it?
Heston: Briefly, it's about the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, who was Nelson Rockefeller's son, the governor of New York, in 1961 in New Guinea, and the search for him 10 year's later by a man named Milt Machlin, the editor of Argosy magazine who went looking for him. It turned out somebody'd seen him, and Milt went to New Guinea and made this amazing film. I discovered the uncut footage about two years ago in a warehouse in Vermont, lying there like "Blair Witch Project," and nobody had done anything with it. It was all chopped up, there were no logs or notebooks. I eventually found Milt's journals in his apartment in New York and put together this kinda cool movie. It's a new documentary about Michael's disappearance and the various possible explanations for it, including some pretty dark secrets.
Click here to see the trailer for "The Search for Michael Rockefeller."