Thundering across the screen, Judah Ben-Hur’s iconic chariot race against his former friend turned bitter foe remains an indelible part of cinematic history and established Charlton Heston as an international superstar. In many ways the race was a metaphor for the actor’s dynamic life, symbolizing his struggle to establish himself in his profession. Brian Steel Wills’ captures for the first time a comprehensive view of the actor’s climb to fame, his search for the perfect performance, and the meaningful roles he played in support of the causes he embraced in Running the Race: The “Public Face” of Charlton Heston.
The actor was born and raised in the Michigan woodlands and suburbs of Chicago, where he found his love of acting in the books he read and the movies he saw. “Chuck” Heston’s introduction to the craft that would become his life’s work began at New Trier High School and spilled over into Northwestern University. The Second World War interrupted his journey when he served his country, after which he and his wife Lydia headed to Asheville, North Carolina, where they both acted and directed in theater.
The lights of New York City and Broadway beckoned, and live television offered an important platform, but Hollywood and feature films were his destiny. His roles were as varied as they were powerful, and included stints as Moses, Ben-Hur, El Cid, Michelangelo, Mike Vargas, and Charles “Chinese” Gordon under legendary directors like Cecil B. DeMille, William Wyler, Franklin Schaffner, and Orson Welles. He shifted to science fiction in Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green, a wide range of action and disaster films, and more nuanced roles such as Will Penny.
Over his decades of performance Heston defined and redefined his “public face” in a constant quest for an audience for his work. He undertook wide-ranging public service roles for the government, the arts, and other causes. His leadership in the Screen Actors Guild and American Film Institute carried him from Hollywood to the halls of Congress. He became an outspoken advocate of the arts and other public and charitable causes, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, and supported Second Amendment rights with the National Rifle Association. He did so even when his positions often clashed with other actors on issues ranging from nuclear arms, national security, and gun rights.
The proud independent shifted decidedly to the Republican Party and appeared at political rallies and conventions, but rebuffed calls to run for office in favor of assuming similar roles on the big screen. Award-winning historian Brian Steel Wills dug deep to paint a rich portrait of Heston’s extraordinary life—a mix of complications and complexities that touched film, television, theater, politics, and society. His carefully crafted “public face” was impactful in more ways than the ordinarily shy and private family man could have ever imagined.
Brian Steel Wills is the Director of the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era and Professor of History at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga. In addition to leading tours, offering lectures, and conducting programs, Dr. Wills is the award-winning author of many books relating to the Civil War, including biographies of Confederate generals Nathan Bedford Forrest and William Dorsey Pender, and Union general George Henry Thomas. Brian has also written about the Civil War for the movies, and recently published a study on noncombat deaths in the Civil War. He is a graduate of the University of Richmond, Virginia, and the University of Georgia. He spends time on his farm in Virginia when not teaching and working in Kennesaw.