April 10, 2008
The life of Charlton Heston, who died last Saturday at the age of 84, was marked by certain ironies.
He was an ardent civil rights activist, a Hollywood star who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. on Washington in 1963, but who became the embodiment of right-wing bluster as president of the National Rifle Association.
He was born and raised as an uber-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 he was, by all accounts, a faithful husband to the same woman for 64 years.
It is interesting to speculate whether his portrayal of 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, 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:
Not to cast Jewish actors in Jewish roles, or, as Harry Cohn of Columbia Studios famously put it, "In my films, the Jews play Indians."
A second rule was to stick to biblical epics but avoid themes smacking of contemporary Jewish life. It wasn't until the creation of Israel that a Jewish (well, half-Jewish) Paul Newman, as Ari Ben-Canaan in "Exodus," could act a part, which the audience clearly identified as a contemporary Jew.
So farewell, Mosesâ¦errâ¦Charlton. You gave us many enjoyable hours on earth, and are ready, we are certain, for your second encounter with your Maker.
-- Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
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