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In The Arena: An Autobiography

By Charlton Heston

The following excerpts are from Charlton Heston's autobiography, In the Arena, relating his experiences with the production of Planet of the Apes. I have added a couple of footnotes, which appear in bold.


The trouble was, none of the three projects that interested me had scripts. One was being peddled around town by an enormously determined young producer named Arthur Jacobs, who'd acquired the rights to a French novel called La Planete des Singes, by Pierre Boulle, about an astronaut stranded on a planet inhabited by intelligent apes.

The novel was singularly uncinematic; there wasn't even a treatment outlining an effective script. Still, I smelled a good film in it. All Arthur had was the rights to the novel and a portfolio of paintings depicting possible scenes. He came up to the house and displayed them, along with what Hollywood calls "The Pitch." When Frank Schaffner came by, he liked it enough to commit as director, but Arthur was a long way from persuading a studio to put up any actual money to make the movie.

He spent the next year and a half in Development Hell, trudging from studio to studio with his paintings and being laughed at. Star Wars and the still-enduring cycle of space operas that followed came later; then, the project recalled the Saturday serials of the 1930s. "No kidding, talking monkeys and rocket ships? Buck Rogers and Ming the Merciless, right? Gedouttahere!"

* * *

By the time we wrapped Will Penny, Dick Zanuck at Fox had finally decided to go forward with Planet of the Apes. Dick's an extremely canny and highly motivated man, rich in the arcane skills that make a producer, as well as the even more mysterious capacities that make a good studio head.

Apes was a risky undertaking, the first of the space operas, and dangerously expensive. We all understood this, but Dick perceived another problem. Having read the script, he looked through the several very effective paintings Arthur Jacobs had prepared. "For the apes, you can't use real monkeys, right? They'll be actors in makeup?"

"Well, sure. Actors."

"What if the audience laughs at the makeups? This is not a comedy." He had us there. Frank Schaffner and I looked at each other, at a loss. "I tell you what Ill do," said Dick. "I'll put fifty thousand dollars into developing the makeups; then we'll see." That was a giant first step: at today's prices, that's half a million dollars. Zanuck assigned the task to John Chambers, then one of the best there was on special makeups. They came out wonderfully well. "We'll shot some makeup tests to show the board back east," Zanuck said. "I want their reaction. If they like it, we'll go."

Frank and I thought we could do better than that." Let me direct a full-scale test of a real scene from the movie," Frank said, "with proper costumes and a decent set."

"And I'll act in it," I added. So that's what we did. Edward G. Robinson seemed a likely final casting for Zaius, the arrogant orangutan who headed the ape government. He endured the two-and-a-half-hour makeup the role required, and performed wonderfully in the test we shot. Dick Zanuck and his board were delighted; we had our go. Then Eddie opted out of the project." It's a good part, but that makeup is a bitch. My heart's just about gone to hell as it is; I couldn't stand it."

Maurice Evans, who'd played our dotty priest in War Lord, proved a salubrious choice to replace him. (Another How Movies Are Really Made note: There's some grumbling in the business that producers and directors and stars keep using the same people -- cameramen, editors, production designers, makeup men. Well, of course they do, actors too. John Ford had a stock company of actors he used again and again all the way down to hit players. So did DeMille. So did we with Maurice in Apes. He was bloody good, too.)

The other principal castings were both chimpanzees, played brilliantly by Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter. For them, too, the makeups were hell to put on, endure, then painfully take off at the end of a long shooting day. When we ran the finished film for the company months later, as I was going into the screening room I was embraced by a very attractive woman I didn't recognize. "Chuck, it's Kim," she said, seeing my confusion. "Kim Hunter." Over the months we'd worked together I'd seen her only as transformed into a chimpanzee.

For the ape extras, masks were sufficient, but anyone near camera or with speaking parts had to wear articulated molded pieces, each applied separately, so the movement of their facial muscles would translate to the surface of the makeup. Our three principal apes became very skilled at this. "You just have to overact with your face," said Roddy, "and it shows quite subtly on the makeup."

As for me, I had time to grow my own beard and thus wore no makeup at all (and damn near no clothes either, except a loincloth not unlike the one I wore pulling galley oar Number Forty-one in Ben-Hur). The primitive, voiceless humans should, of course, have been naked, but all that frontal male nudity would be a problem in the film even today. Frank wanted me naked for the trial scene, but he shot from the rear. (One of the girls supplying coffee on the set said archly "Mmmm, nice buns." I suppose I could nail her for sexual harassment for that today.)

The shoot was a very tough one. In an effort to keep the budget down on a film that was then testing unknown waters, Fox had cut ten days off our shooting schedule, crowding us badly given the preponderance of location work we had. Still, Dick Zanuck had stepped forward on a film the other studios were leery of; we bit the bullet and conceded the ten days.

Summer in the Arizona desert is no fun. One of my fellow astronauts passed out from the heat on the first day, trudging over the sand dunes. Paddling a life raft ashore from our spacecraft, crashed in the waters of Glen Canyon Dam, I realized that the channel of the Colorado River was four hundred feet below me.

Four years earlier I'd stood chest deep in its cold water, baptizing Max von Sydow for The Greatest Story Ever Told.

I did get one day off from the desert, finishing early enough on a Saturday to catch the plane carrying the day's film home. I slept with my wife and woke in my own bed, soon joined by Holly in her nightgown, a rumpled angel with tangled gold hair. I had to fly back that afternoon, but I had time to take Fray [Fraser Heston, Chuck's son] to watch the pros play tennis, explaining the strokes to him. It would've been worth twice the travel time to spend fifteen hours on my ridge.

Halfway into the shoot, back in California for even more extensive locations on the Fox Ranch (now condominiums and parkland) in the Santa Monica Mountains north of Malibu, I began to discover how rough a film this was for me physically. I was in shape, as my profession requires, whether you're driving a chariot or playing Henry VIII on his deathbed, as I've also done. An actor's body is his crucial tool, like a concert pianist's Steinway. If it's out of tune, you don't do very well.

Still, it was a rough summer for me. Barefoot and all but naked in most of the scenes, I was ridden down by gorillas, whipped, chained, gagged, stoned (even rubber rocks hurt), firehosed, and finally trapped in a net and jerked upside down. (Joe Canutt doubled me for the net-trap; when they printed it, he said "Y'know, Chuck, I remember when we used to win all these fights.")

The tough shoot worked to my advantage for one key scene. Having spent an entire day in the mountains being driven around a cage with a fire hose, I dried off, changed, and helicoptered back to L.A. in time to chair a Screen Actors Guild negotiation with the producers. (No, Fox paid the tab, not SAG.) By the next morning, I had a cold, which I never get, ever, while I'm working, on stage or screen. Before or after, yes, not during. Until then. The next day, my voice was reduced to a rasping croak. As it happened, I had only one line in the scene, for which that was exactly the voice I needed. Taylor, captured at last after his escape from the apes, speaks his first words after the throat wound that's rendered him mute. A key Trivial Pursuit question, the line's often quoted to me by devotees of the film: "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" Not Shakespeare, certainly, but it works a ton for the scene.

I noted a curious anomaly on the location shoots. At lunch, the ape actors lunched separately, since their makeups limited them to liquid foods taken through a straw. But beyond that, they self-segregated by species: gorillas at one table, chimps at another, and orangutans at still a third. I leave it to the anthropologists to figure this out.

We finished on schedule, a goal I value more than some of my colleagues do. The wrap party (long since mandatory and now often rivaling Nero's banquets) hadn't been invented then, but Frank and I shared a drink in his office after looking at the last dailies. "I smelled a hit in this from the beginning," I said, "but I think maybe we also made a very good movie." So it proved, some months later. It not only grossed enormous numbers, it created a new film genre: the space opera. Fantasies set in outer space had long been a staple of the comic strips and Saturday-morning kiddie TV, but had been disdained by Hollywood. Later, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were to explore space wonderfully, with far better technology, over a series of films, but Apes broke the ground.

Dick Zanuck was the first to perceive the future. Hollywood had done sequels in the thirties, producing low-budget films with the same characters, exploring and re-exploring the same plots and relationships with the Dead End Kids, and Abbott and Costello, much as the networks do now with sitcoms. MGM did the same thing a little more seriously with Andy Hardy and with the Thin Man films. But it never occurred to Louis B. Mayer to make a sequel to Mutiny on the Bounty.

It occurred to Dick. When Apes was halfway through its triumphant release, with rubber ape masks in the stores and so forth, he called me. "Chuck! Apes is showing incredible legs, and I know why. It's a different kind of film, something people haven't seen before. There's a wealth of stories there. We have to do a sequel, maybe two." (In the end, they did four, plus two TV series. The networks picked up on that and gave us "Star Trek," which in turn spawned several features.)

"You're probably right, Dick," I said. "But we've made the movie; I think it is special. You can't remake the same story. A sequel would just be further adventures among the monkeys."

"Chuck, Fox has to make this film; the opportunity's too big to miss. But I canŐt do it if you're not in it."

"Look, I see your point, but for me, I'd just be repeating the same part." I'd totally missed the point, of course, a point Arnold and Sly and Harrison and Eddie Murphy grasped instantly, eventually repeating the same parts through some twenty vastly successful films. I'm content, though. I had the best part of them all, if only in one film. The first Apes actually has a philosophical point to make. Commander Taylor (we never know his first name) [It's George] is a cynical misanthrope, so disenchanted with his fellow man that, perhaps unconsciously, he's exiled himself from Earth, launched through time to an unknown future. The crash of his spaceship strands him in a simian civilization where he finds himself the sole defender of Homo Sapiens as a superior species.

The half-buried Statue of Liberty shows him at last that he's home on Earth. On his knees, despairing, he condemns his fellow man: "You did it, didn't you... you really did it. God damn you all to hell!" Given the freedom of screen dialogue now, I have to point out that you couldn't say that in the sixties. "But he's not swearing," I said. "He's literally calling on God to damn the people who destroyed the world." We won that one.

I also solved the sequel problem, I thought. I said to Dick, "Look, I realize you can't do a sequel if I'm not in it. You stepped up to this film when no one else would; I owe you one. I'll do your sequel free, if you kill me off in the first scene. Contribute whatever you think it's worth to Harvard School." (A very fine private school in Los Angeles where Dick had gone and Fray was then enrolled.)

So that's what we did. I had no involvement in the script, of course; Dick asked me if it was OK for me to disappear in the first scene and be killed in the last. I accepted this, still dealing with only a few days of free acting, and thought I'd checkmated the whole process by talking the director into letting me detonate an atom bomb in the last scene, presumably wiping out both the ape civilization and any further sequels.

Wrong. The third film, I'm told, went back to a time before the second, and so on and so on. I've seen only the original film, but I understand a couple of the sequels were good. I'm still comfortable with the way we worked it out. My grandson's trust fund would he fatter if I'd taken the path my colleagues did later and done all the sequels myself, but he'll be OK on his own.

* * *

You can never tell in advance how casting choices will pan out. I'd worked with Eddie Robinson before; he was Dathan in Ten Commandments, and we'd tested him for the orangutan Maurice Evans subsequently played in Planet of the Apes. Eddie had pulled out of that one because he felt his bad heart couldn't take the pressures of that difficult makeup. But he was delighted to play old Sol in Soylent, though he smiled when MGM, agreeing to his substantial salary request, wanted to defer half of it: "At seventy-nine, I'm not much interested in deferments."

Eddie knew he was dying when he undertook Soylent, though none of us did. He sat in a chair on the sound stage all day, seldom going back to his trailer, talking to the other actors, the crew people, Dick and Walter. I think he wanted to feel the banter behind the cameras once more too, not just the work. I remember him listening to a couple of young actors bitching about the boring waits between setups while the shot's laid out and lit.

He grinned, "You know, I've always figured the waiting is what they pay me for. The acting I do free."