Moses, Marc Antony, El Cid, John the Baptist — legends, heroes and Northwestern graduates.
All were characters that actor and Northwestern alum Charlton Heston played during his lifetime, before he passed away April 5 at the age of 84. Best known for his Oscar-winning performance in 1959’s Ben Hur, Heston got his acting start right here on Chicago’s North Shore.
He was born in an Evanston hospital and raised in Wilmette, attending New Trier High School in Winnetka. After playing the lead role in the high school’s production of The American Way, he received a college scholarship from the Winnetka Drama Club and came to Northwestern in 1941.
A student of the School of Speech, Heston dove into the theater world right away, participating in six university productions. His roles in these productions, however, were not quite as glamorous as his later film roles: Heston played such legendary characters as “Porter” in From Morn to Midnight, “Guest at Werle’s Dinner Party” in The Wild Duck, and “Sarcastic Bystander” in Pygmalion.
Heston did get a chance to play more prominent roles while on campus, though, acting as Archer in Beaux Stratagem, Judge Brack in 1942’s Hedda Gabler, and Strength in 1942’s The Summoning of Everyman.
He also had the chance to play opposite Lydia Clarke, a School of Speech student in the Class of 1945. The two acted together in Hedda Gabler and Pygmalion, and would later marry.
A not-so-strong start
Heston’s early critics were not always sympathetic. The Oct. 23, 1941, issue of The Daily Northwestern contains a review of the play Francesca de Rimini that claims the production featured “careful interpretations but immature acting,” and that “Charles Heston, as Paelo, the lover, was acceptably convincing in his love-making.”
Heston’s peers saw more in him, however, and especially saw in him a good spirit. In Northwestern University School of Speech: A History, fellow student Constance Bard Wyman recalls a story about Heston and how he helped her to recover from severe stage fright before a 1941 performance of The Tempest:
What if I sang off key? What if my feet slipped and I fell as I leaped around the stage? What if I forgot my lines? And, as fear all but immobilized me, a tall, lanky underclassman came to my rescue. He wasn’t in the play, but he was always around — watching, learning, commenting, and he was there on opening night. He ‘just happened’ to have a copy of Now We Are Six and he began reading those A.A. Milne poems to me…The grip of fear left me — I was able to think and go on!
That underclassman came back the next night and the following and kept me from giving in to my own foolishness. I remember him also, striding along in a camel’s hair coat the collar of which was stained with makeup. He left that makeup stain there on purpose, for he was proud to be a part of the theatre. Once he confided to me that a relative of his had told him he had been born with the sound of trumpets in his ears.
But Heston had to leave Northwestern to fully absorb the sound of those trumpets. In 1944, Heston married Clarke and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. The decision to enter the war required Heston to leave Northwestern, to which he never returned as a student.
His decision was highly influenced by his mother’s opinion. According to a 1960 Chicago Tribune article, Heston’s mother said, “I told him, ‘Well, my son, do you intend to teach acting?’ ‘Of course not,’ he answered. ‘Well then,’ I told him, ‘catch the next plane to New York and put your foot in the door.’”
And put his foot in the door he did. In 1950, Heston made his first professional film appearance as Marc Antony in David Bradley’s Julius Caesar. From there, he went on to make more than 100 acting appearances in film and television, picking up Emmy and Golden Laurel nominations, as well as an Oscar.
An active alum
To Northwestern, Heston remained a loyal and active alumnus, making frequent visits to campus throughout his lifetime. The actor returned in November 1976 to host a tennis competition to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and again in 1978 to give the commencement address to the School of Speech graduates.
Heston was also especially involved in the construction of the university’s Theatre and Interpretation Center, now commonly referred to as “TI”. In the fall of 1975, Heston appeared in a campaign film for the new building, and on June 17, 1978, he returned to participate in the official groundbreaking. Heston came to campus again in 1980 for the Theatre and Interpretation Center dedication gala program.
Lydia Clarke Heston accompanied her husband to their alma mater on a number of these trips. In March 1993, the two came to campus to perform Love Letters by A.R. Gurney as a benefit for the Theater and Interpretation Center.
The Hestons returned to campus again in 1993 when Charlton spoke at the seminar about his lengthy career in the movie business.
Despite cutting his time short as a Northwestern student to assist in the war effort, Charlton Heston remained a true and dedicated friend of the school. His accomplishments and generosity are something admirable. Heston was a student, an actor, a soldier, a leader and a Wildcat.