On Charlton Heston's Pants

The world, as we all learn by middle age, is irrevocably divided into two sorts of people: the glamorous, and the rest of us. My own epiphany I owe to Charlton Heston. The occasion was the Wimbledon championship of 1968, the first year when professionals were allowed to play. I know little about tennis and have even less aptitude for the game. "So? You won't be biased by knowledge," my editor said. Duly, I set about the task of conveying the excited atmosphere of this historic opening (helped by the kindness of that great sportswriter Bud Collins, who took pity on me—a debt I belatedly acknowledge).

Then Heston appeared. I was hovering by the ivy-covered main stand, talking with the legendary tennis champion Jaroslav Drobny, when a limo with tinted windows drew up beside us. Out stepped Heston. He was, simply and utterly, the most beautiful man I have ever seen. Tall, trim, tanned, chiseled. Every inch a demigod. Even Drobny was stunned; I recall some awe-struck Slavic oath. My photographer took a shot of the three of us, which I have buried deep in my personal files. We look like an illustration of the Ascent of Man, with me as slouching Pithecanthropus. And then, as I scanned Heston's impressive length, I spied the ultimate proof of his demigod status. His trousers had no creases at the crotch.

Now, this was a hot day. And, as all men know, hot days generate creases where we least need them, in the business section of the slacks. It's just a fact of male life. By midday that Wimbledon the immaculate summer suits we had donned before breakfast looked as though they'd been crumpled up in a ball and thrown under the bed for a month. Even Drobny's were so afflicted, I was comforted to see. But not Charlton Heston. Below his beautifully cut blazer his gray flannels were crease-free. This, after a drive from central London. How had he managed it, I wondered? Propped himself rigid and unbending in his limo throughout the drive? Changed pants at the last minute?

I would like to say I asked him this high fashion question. I didn't. The greeters from the All England Lawn Tennis Club being nowhere in evidence, I stepped forward and introduced myself and Drobny. We talked for five minutes or so, Heston quizzing Drobny about his most famous matches with the acumen of a serious tennis buff. This gave me time to think of a question that, as an equally serious movie buff, I genuinely longed to have answered. Heston's first movie, back in 1941, was "Peer Gynt," an amateur 16mm effort that I'd seen. But he later made "Julius Caesar" with the same director, a friend at Northwestern, where Heston had been a student. I'd been told he was strikingly good in it. Was there a copy of that anywhere, I asked?

Heston threw back his head and gave a giant guffaw, his perfect teeth illuminating his beautiful face. "So you're a movie fanatic," he said. "And you've seen 'Peer Gynt.' Wasn't I terrible ?" The greeters finally arrived. "Come find me at lunch and we'll talk," said Heston as he was led away.

So I did. We sat beneath the parasols on the club lawn. Strawberries and cream were being served. Heston had a big helping of strawberries, declining the cream. We talked for close to an hour, first about his early days in theater, pre-Hollywood, and then about his "epic" phase—starting with "The Ten Commandments" in 1956. By that point he'd been in a half-dozen or so—the most famous being "Ben Hur" (and the best, I still believe, being "El Cid").

Two things about that visit stay with me to this day. First, the voice. Heston handled his like a musician. He had superb breath control, and an ability born of years of training to change the coloration of his tone from one phrase to the next. That surprised me less than his animation. Talking about his craft, Heston used his hands so often to illustrate a point that the teaspoon he was using to scoop up his strawberries waved like a baton in his long fingers. I recall remarking that his animated manner contrasted with the exquisite stillness at the core of his style in those epics. He launched into an account of how those epic roles had required "a new style of acting." His challenge had been to find a way to convey nuance beneath the "protean" surface those roles required. In "The Ten Commandments" Cecil B. DeMille had been no help at all, Heston said, so he'd turned for advice to his co-star, Edward G. Robinson. But William Wyler—"once we got on terms"—was the one who ultimately helped him perfect his approach in "Ben Hur" three years later.

The greeters came to summon him again. "Acting for the big screen is all about knowing what to leave out," he said as he rose to follow them.

His trousers, I noted as we got up, were still uncreased. I still don't know how he managed that. What I do recall is the passion of a consummate professional talking about his craft. And the lesson that even demigods may turn out to be very nice guys.