Menu JTA Search

The ironies of Charlton Heston

SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING

Charlton Heston's portrayal of the fearless Moses in "The Ten Commandments" likely had little effect in changing the stereotype of Jews in the 1950s. (Paramount Pictures)

Charlton Heston’s portrayal of the fearless Moses in “The Ten Commandments” likely had little effect in changing the stereotype of Jews in the 1950s. (Paramount Pictures)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) – The life of Charlton Heston was marked by certain ironies.

Heston, who died last Saturday at the age of 84, was an ardent civil rights activist, a Hollywood star who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Washington in 1963, but who became the embodiment of right-wing bluster as the president of the National Rifle Association.

He was born and raised as an archetypical WASP in the Midwest and gained his greatest fame portraying towering Jewish characters, Moses and Judah Ben Hur.

Even while reviled by most American Jews as an arch conservative, he was a close and loyal friend of many liberal Jews.

In a town famed for its licentiousness, Heston by all accounts was a faithful husband to the same woman for 64 years.

It is interesting to speculate whether his portrayal of the fearless, handsome Moses and Ben Hur had any impact in changing the stereotype of the Jew still prevalent in America of the 1950s as a money-grubbing, hook-nosed coward.

While perhaps a few moviegoers in the Bible Belt drew a connection between the heroic screen figure and the Jewish grocery store owner down the street, for most gentiles the historical gap was likely too much of a leap.

In the popular mind of that time, the ancient Hebrews of the Bible were one breed of men, contemporary Jews a completely different people. Moses escaped from Egypt, the grandfather of the New York lawyer arrived from Russia.

Indeed, it is fair to say that if Heston’s birth name had been Horowitz, with the identical looks and talent, he would not have been cast to play Moses.

The self-conscious immigrant Jews who founded and ran the Hollywood studios had two unspoken rules. First, Jewish actors were not to be cast in Jewish roles – as Harry Cohn of Columbia Studios famously put it, “In my films, the Jews play Indians.”

The second rule was to stick to biblical epics while avoiding themes smacking of contemporary Jewish life. It wasn’t until the creation of Israel that a Jewish Paul Newman – well, half-Jewish – as Ari Ben-Canaan in “Exodus” could act a part that the audience clearly identified as a contemporary Jew.

So farewell, Moses … er … Charlton. You gave us many enjoyable hours on earth and are ready, we are certain, for your second encounter with your Maker.

NEXT STORY