The Charlton Heston Centenary

One hundred years ago, on October 4, 1923, actor Charlton Heston was born. This Wednesday, October 4, 2023, starting at 6 am (ET), Turner Classic Movies is celebrating that centenary with a full 24 hours of Heston films, and will continue to highlight his filmography on Wednesday nights in October.

Here, my focus is not on Heston’s political journey, whether in his role as President of the Screen Actors Guild or in his commitment to Civil Rights (he was among those Hollywood stars who joined Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1963 March on Washington) or in his commitment to Gun Rights as NRA President (famously holding above his head a replica of a flintlock long rifle and declaring “From My Cold Dead Hands!”). I have long believed that while it’s always important to understand an artist’s creative work in the context of their life, it is both proper and necessary to evaluate the creation quite apart from the creator. As I have written:

It’s a hermeneutical truth, as Paul Ricoeur would have emphasized, that every creation is “detached from its author and develops consequences of its own. In so doing, it transcends its relevance to its initial situation and addresses an indefinite range of possible readers.” Every time any creation—be it a book, idea, or artwork—enters the world, it leaves the domain of the creator and begins to speak to countless individuals in myriad ways. And every time each of us, as “readers”, is exposed to that creation, our response to it remains deeply personal, profoundly entwined with our own emotions and life experiences. And that is as it should be.

In that spirit, here, my focus is on Heston’s creative output—his films—and what they have meant to me.

Heston has played a veritable Who’s Who of iconic figures, including El Cid, Michelangelo, John the Baptist, Sir Thomas More, Buffalo Bill, and Moses, as well as two appearances each as Andrew Jackson, Mark Antony, and Cardinal Richelieu. He appeared in a remarkable variety of film genres—Film noir: from “Dark City” to the Orson Welles classic, “Touch of Evil”; Adventure: from “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “The Naked Jungle” to “Secret of the Incas”, which served as the inspiration for “Raiders of the Lost Ark”; Westerns: from William Wyler’s “The Big Country” and Sam Peckinpah’s “Major Dundee” to “Will Penny”; Historical Epics, including Khartoum and 55 Days at Peking; Biblically-inspired Epics: “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur”; Sci-Fi: “The Omega Man,” “Soylent Green,” and the Rod Serling-penned “Planet of the Apes”; and Disaster films: “Skyjacked”, “Airport 1975”, and “Earthquake,” which I saw in theaters, in Sensuround! He also made his mark on television—from the 1949 anthology series, “Suspense”, to his tenure as Jason Colby on “Dynasty” and “The Colbys” in the 1980s … not to mention a stint as host of “Saturday Night Live” (after being parodied so well by Phil Hartman).

Heston was not a Method Actor. His style harked back to a more classical mode, lending itself to stoic, authoritative, and theatrical performances often perfectly suited to those “larger than life” characters for which he was noted. He had presence on the screen. Nevertheless, it has become quite fashionable to dismiss Heston as a “ham” and to label all his performances as “stiff”, “bellicose”, or “over the top”. Certainly, some of the films in which he’s appeared have themselves been marked by theatricality. “The Ten Commandments”, for example, features dialogue that is often archaic and scriptural, cast against a sprawling canvas. But once you’ve seen Chuck Heston part the Red Sea, can you really think of any other actors who could have lifted that staff and uttered those biblical lines with the same majesty? I’ve seen some fine actors portray Moses—Christian Bale, Burt Lancaster, Ben Kingsley—but, quite frankly, they all pale in comparison.

Whereas DeMille’s final film was his grandest, three years later, Heston would appear in the film that would bring him a Best Actor Oscar. Unlike the costume epics of yore, “Ben-Hur” (1959), directed by William Wyler, is often credited as the first contemporary “intimate epic”, insofar as it never sacrifices the development of its characters to the colossal backdrop against which their struggles play out. It’s my all-time favorite film, one that I’ve written about extensively over the years.

For Me, It’s Personal …

The first film I ever saw Heston in was “Planet of the Apes”, as an 8-year-old kid at the local “Highway Theater” in what is still my Brooklyn neighborhood—though the movie house is long gone. In later years, when I read critiques of Heston as having “overacted” in this film, I was puzzled. Given that the character he plays, an astronaut, Col. George Taylor, has crash-landed on a planet that is itself a “madhouse”—an upside down, inside out world populated by intelligent apes and non-speaking people, in an unfolding nightmare about the frightening paradoxes of human existence—well, I’m not quite sure how differently the role could have been played by any actor. In the closing moments of that film, when Taylor discovers a horrific sight on a deserted beach in the “Forbidden Zone”, he falls to his knees and pounds his fist into the sand, howling: “Damn you! Goddamn you all to hell!” I can’t help but ask: How exactly would a Method Actor have made this scene and those lines any more chilling than the way it was rendered by Heston?

All I know is that when I saw “Planet of the Apes” in 1968, the final frame was met not by applause or even whispers; the audience was stunned into complete silence. I was so shocked by that film that in 1974, I returned to the same theater to participate in a day-long marathon presentation of all five of the franchise films presented in order (“Planet of the Apes”, “Beneath the …”, “Escape from the …”, “Conquest of the …” and “Battle for the …”)—for the price of one. They don’t show ‘em like that anymore!

The second Heston film I saw on the big screen was entirely different from that sci-fi classic. I joined my family in a trek to Manhattan to the great Palace Theater, which, with its colossal 70 mm screen, preserved the Technicolor glory and full original 2.76:1 aspect ratio of a tenth anniversary re-release of the 11 Oscar Award-winning film, “Ben-Hur”.

It was the summer of 1969, in the aftermath of the death of Judy Garland—something I remember vividly since Garland’s portrait was hanging in the lobby of the theater. The presentation was like that of a Broadway play, complete with an Overture, an Intermission, and an Entr’ Acte, a prelude to the superbly filmed, climactic chariot race (in which Chuck did most of the stunt work) and a thunderous finale staged in the shadow of Christ’s crucifixion with its miraculous symbolism. For years before, I had listened to the timeless Miklos Rozsa film score, and when I finally saw the images that matched that magnificent soundtrack, I was as overwhelmed as any 9-year-old kid could be by the spectacle. But ultimately, even as a youngster, I was moved by the depth of the story, and especially the conflicts and inner struggles of its central character and his journey toward personal redemption—all brilliantly expressed in Heston’s nuanced performance.

The following year, in 1970, Heston and his co-star Tina Chen showed up at the Highway Theater, to kick off “The Hawaiians”—and I was there in person to see him. I was only 10 years old. When he walked in, he looked like a tall granite statue with a ton of freckles. But he brought levity to his remarks before the film, which I very much enjoyed.

Five years later, now a teenager, I traveled with my family during the Christmas season of 1975, to see for the first time, “The Ten Commandments”, which, in re-release, was playing at Manhattan’s famed Ziegfeld Theatre. And like “Ben-Hur”, viewing this film on the big screen was an overwhelming cinematic experience. The wondrous, eye-popping parting of the Red Sea alone was worth the price of admission.

So yes, for me, Charlton Heston’s filmography has great personal significance. By the time of his death in 2008, after years of struggling with Alzheimer’s, Heston had appeared in over 120 film and television productions. So many of these productions provided me with a sense of cinematic grandeur at such an early age. I was entertained, for sure. Some films thrilled me with their adventure and excitement, while others challenged me to think about the human condition, evoking in me a complex range of emotions. I know that this cinematic legacy is real because, as I’ve aged, I can still watch any number of Heston’s films for the umpteenth time and be affected ever more meaningfully, even as I retain the same feelings of awe I had as a child.

Indeed, because of the ways in which his work inspired my love of film, I celebrate the centenary of Charlton Heston’s birth.

(* Collage above created by … me!)

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Song of the Day #2074

Song of the Day: Sanford and Son (“The Streetbeater”) [YouTube link], composed by the great Quincy Jones, first appeared on the artist’s album, “You’ve Got it Bad Girl“. It features some really fine musicians: keyboardist George Duke, saxophonists Phil Woods and Ernie Watts, and harmonica player Tommy Morgan. It is most famous, however, for its use as the theme song to “Sanford and Son“, the NBC sitcom that ran from 1972 to 1976. Check out the opening credits as well as an extended version [YouTube links]. As the Autumnal Equinox approaches in the wee hours of tomorrow morning, this Eighth Annual Summer Music Festival (TV Edition)—celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Emmy Awards (postponed to January 15, 2024)—concludes!

Song of the Day #2073

Song of the Day: Better Call Saul (“Address Unknown”), words and music by Carmen Lombardo, Dedette Lee Hill, and Johnny Mark, was recorded by The Ink Spots and went to #1 in 1939. But it experienced a resurgence when it was heard in the opening sequence of the series premiere (“Uno“) of “Better Call Saul“, which first aired on February 8, 2015. The show, which stars Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman (aka Jimmy McGill, aka Gene Takovic), was developed by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould. It is a triumphant spinoff of the critically acclaimed series, “Breaking Bad“. The Emmy Awards were scheduled for tonight (and it’s the 75th anniversary of those awards that is being celebrated in this year’s Eighth Annual Summer Music Festival). But the ceremony has been postponed to January 15, 2024, due to the Writers Guild of America and SAG/AFTRA strike. “Better Call Saul” has received several Emmy nominations, including Best Drama, Lead Actor (Odenkirk), Supporting Actress (Rhea Seehorn) and two for Writing (Gordon Smith and Peter Gould). In its history, the show has garnered 53 Primetime Emmy and Creative Arts Emmy nominations and has only won 2 technical awards in the latter category. Whatever the results, this show and its predecessor remain among the finest achievements in television history, in my view. And to Roderick Tracy Long again: I promised I’d include this song at a future date! Check out the original recording and its appearance in the 2015 debut BCS episode [YouTube link].

#911NeverForget / Song of the Day #2072

Song of the Day: Rescue Me (“C’mon C’mon”), words and music by Jason Stollsteimer, from The Von Bondies, is the theme song to this FX TV series that ran from 2004-2011. The show, starring Denis Leary, centered on the personal and professional struggles of New York City firefighters, many of whom were suffering from 9/11 PTSD. It served as an homage to those brave souls who rescued thousands of people at the World Trade Center on this date in 2001. Check out the opening credits and the full version of this garage rock television theme [YouTube links]. #911NeverForget.

(Photo taken by Chris Matthew Sciabarra, from the Staten Island Ferry, May 12, 2001)

Celebrating the Life of Guitarist Jack Wilkins

This past Wednesday, September 6, a lovely tribute to the musical legacy of the late guitarist Jack Wilkins (3 June 1944 – 5 May 2023) took place at Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan. It has been posted on YouTube. Back in May, I reflected on Jack’s life and work. My brother, guitarist Carl Barry, who was a dear friend of Jack’s, performed at the celebration (check out that performance here).

Song of the Day #2071

Song of the Day: Dawson’s Creek (“I Don’t Want to Wait”), composed by Paula Cole, first appeared on the artist’s 1996 album, “The Fire“. It was a hit across pop, adult alternative, and adult contemporary platforms long before it was picked up as the opening theme to this WB series, which ran from 1998 to 2003. The series starred James Van Der Beek, Katie Holmes, Michelle Williams, and Joshua Jackson. Check out the original music video and its use in the opening credits to the show [YouTube links].

Don Lavoie and the Knowledge Problem

I first met Don Lavoie when I was an undergraduate at NYU. We became very dear friends and followed similarly focused professional paths.

Sadly, in 2001, Don passed away at the young age of 50. But his important work on the “knowledge problem” is among his most significant legacies. Indeed, his insights are deeply appreciated by those of us who adhere to a dialectical vision of human freedom and personal flourishing. That was one of the reasons I welcomed Nathan Goodman​’s wonderful contribution, “Don Lavoie’s Dialectical Liberalism“, to The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, published in 2019, and for which I was a coeditor.

Among those very promising young writers who are carrying forth Don’s remarkable legacy is my friend Cory Massimino​. As Cory writes in his recent essay, “Don Lavoie on the Continuing Relevance of the Knowledge Problem“:

Lavoie considered himself a “radical” in the sense that he thought “our society is in serious trouble and demands a sharp departure from current policies” and affirmed the need to “transcend—through principled and concerted social action—war and militarism, political oppression, and special privilege, and to set in motion progressive forces that will begin to solve such difficult human problems as poverty, disease, and environmental decay.” … For Lavoie, the knowledge problem informed not just a radical critique but a radical vision, a lively, humanistic, cosmopolitan, and emancipatory vision of cultural, scientific, and economic progress through peaceful social cooperation, dynamic experimentation, and mutual exchange. As the knowledge problem continues to be misunderstood, underrated, or downright ignored, and as human freedom continues to be trampled on, it’s vital we keep the legacy and, more importantly, the ideas of Don Lavoie alive and well.

Amen. Check out Cory’s article!

Song of the Day #2070

Song of the Day: Only Murders in the Building (“Look for the Light”), words and music by Sara Bareilles, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, is featured in Season 3, Episode 3 (“Grab Your Hankies”) of this show, which first streamed on August 15, 2023. This Hulu series began its run in August 2021; it has an incredible cast of characters, with a wonderful trio—portrayed by Martin Short, Steve Martin, and Selena Gomez—leading the seasonal investigations. I’ve enjoyed the show not only for its blend of hilarious inside jokes and touching poignancy, but also for its familiar New York settings. There are still four more episodes left to the newest season and we still don’t know Whodunit! Check out Meryl Streep and Ashley Park, who perform this lovely song in episode 3. OMITB has a nice title theme as well, composed by Sidhartha Khosla [YouTube link].

Elizabeth Ann Sciabarra (“Ski”): A Life

On September 2, 1952, seventy-one years ago today, my sister, Elizabeth Ann Sciabarra (aka “Ski”), was born. In loving tribute to her life, I culled together photos from the time of her childhood through her professional career. These are snapshots-in-time—of family, friends, colleagues, and beloved students. Creating this chronological collage was both fun and poignant. It is set to a medley of tunes from one of our favorite artists, Michael Jackson, whom we saw in concert twice (in 1984, with his brothers, on The Victory Tour; in 1988, solo, on The Bad Tour).

Our Love Eternal.

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Song of the Day #2069

Song of the Day: The NBC Mystery Movie (“Main Theme”) [YouTube link], composed by the legendary Henry Mancini, opened this anthology television movie series, which ran from 1971 to 1977. Mancini had such an enormous impact on film music, but his brilliance came to the small screen as well, in shows as varied as “Peter Gunn“, “Newhart“, and “Remington Steele” [YouTube links].