Fraser Heston, the son of late Hollywood megastar Charlton Heston and 93-year-old actress Lydia Clarke, jokes that he "won the parent lottery."
Heston referred to his parents as "'Greatest Generation' midwesterners … Real solid, down-to-earth people," and called his father "a really good mentor for me in a lot of things."
In anticipation of the 2016 “Ben-Hur” remake, which hits theaters Friday, Fraser Heston spoke with the Deseret News about his father's legacy, faith in filmmaking and his thoughts on a rebooted version of one of his dad's most iconic roles.
Being raised in a family so firmly planted in the hubbub of Hollywood, it's no surprise that Heston would go on to become a writer, director and film producer in his own right, nor that one of his earliest childhood memories is being driven around in a chariot by his father on the set of William Wyler's epic 1959 film "Ben-Hur." Heston recalled the experience as being "a heck of a lot of fun."
"I imagine I thought (my father) was a professional charioteer," Heston said.
"Ben-Hur" is set in the first-century Roman empire and tells the story of a Jewish prince who is betrayed by a friend and sold into slavery before seeking vengeance in what ultimately becomes a remarkable tale of redemption. Now, 57 years later, the film is being remade, and Heston said he can't help but reflect upon his dad's legacy.
Charlton Heston, arguably one of the biggest movie stars of his generation, is best remembered for his roles as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments," as George Taylor in the "Planet of the Apes" films of the 1960s and '70s, and as the titular character of the three-and-a-half-hour-long "Ben-Hur," among more than 120 other film credits, according to IMDb. He passed away in 2008 at the age of 84.
"I remember (my father's role in 'Ben-Hur') was a very big deal," Fraser Heston said. "Dad had done 'The Ten Commandments,' ... (but) I think he hadn’t really quite cemented his reputation as a major Hollywood star. And he never really saw himself as a star. He saw himself as an actor, but clearly, there was one more step to go. If 'Ben-Hur' had failed, dad’s career might have taken a very different path."
Luckily for the Hestons, "Ben-Hur" was anything but a failure. According to boxofficemojo.com, the film grossed $74 million domestically during its initial theatrical run. Fraser Heston recalled that MGM was in a tight spot at that time financially and that, in retrospect, MGM has often referred to "Ben-Hur" as the movie that saved their studio.
"It was really one of the first modern epics," Heston said. "If you hold 'Ben-Hur' up against any film today, whether 'Gladiator' or the present 'Ben-Hur,' I think you will find it will hold its own pretty well in terms of filmmaking technique and acting style and photography."
In 1959, "Ben-Hur" won 11 Academy Awards, including Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor in a Leading Role, won by Charlton Heston.
Heston said he thinks his friend Jack Huston (of "Boardwalk Empire" and "American Hustle" fame) was a "wonderful choice" to take on the part of Ben-Hur.
"He’s a real actor," Heston said. "He’s not just a movie star. He’s a well-known guy, but he’s the real thing, and I think he’s an excellent choice for that part."
While faith played an important part in the original film, Heston believes the religious aspect of the story will be enhanced in the 2016 film, which was produced by the prominent Christian husband-and-wife team Mark Burnett ("The Bible" miniseries) and Roma Downey ("Touched By an Angel").
Because it was released so long ago, Fraser Heston understands that many current moviegoers may not have seen the original film, but he said now is as good a time as any to pick up a copy on DVD or Blu-ray and compare it to the modern remake. He also believes that the message told by the two movies, which appear to be fairly consistent, as far as he could tell, will resonate with a modern audience.
"In some ways, the same struggles are going on in the same part of the world right now — in the Middle East and North Africa, Syria and all of these places," he said. "I think the message is a Christian message, in a very broad, generic sense. It has that theme of that sort of Judeo-Christian theme of redemption and forgiveness, which I think is a good message, regardless of what your religious preference is.”