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Tuesday March 13 05:16 PM EST
from Yahoo Daily News

Heston Talks "Ben-Hur," "Gladiator"...Apes

He's the staunchly conservative president of the National Rifle Association, he readily recites scenes from The Ten Commandments, and he was berating "damn, dirty apes" before Mark Wahlberg even learned to talk.

So when Charlton Heston's in a room, it gets pretty tough to stay on topic.

But on this particular day in Los Angeles, the 76-year-old actor is not sitting with reporters to insult raging Hollywood Democrats (he does anyway), or wax Biblical about the rights of gun owners (he bites his tongue this time around). More importantly, starting Tuesday, Heston is going digital--as Warner Bros. releases one of his most beloved epics of all time, Ben-Hur, for the first time on DVD.

The MGM classic, which won 11 Oscars in 1959 including a Best Actor trophy for Heston and Best Director honors for William Wyler, has received a high-tech overhaul for the much-anticipated DVD release.

Packed with a digitally remastered picture and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, newly discovered screen tests from the likes of Leslie Nielsen and Cesare Danova, and a behind-the-scenes documentary of the filming, Ben-Hur is literally getting super-sized. The film was just one of two features originally shot with MGM Camera 65--a super widescreen format that, when transferred to television, left half of the image cut off from viewers.

Now, the full image has been restored, and to top it all off, Heston himself is scoring favorable reviews for his own running commentary on the DVD.

But it's a task Heston's unashamed to show his disdain for.

"It's work I'm supposed to do, and I try to do it as well as I can," he said. "But it gets pretty tired after awhile. But I'm very proud of the movie. It's certainly one of my best."

It's also great timing for a Ben-Hur resurgence, given the renewed interest in sword-and-sandal features, thanks to 12 Oscar nominations for Ridley Scott's own bigger-than-life tale, Gladiator. From one leading man to another, Heston said Russell Crowe deserved the Oscar nod for Best Actor. "I thought it was very good, and Mr. Crowe does a marvelous performance, as indeed does everybody," he said.

But it was Ben-Hur that first set the benchmark for big-budget Hollywood epics. Wyler's film, which cost $15 million to make, was the most expensive movie ever made at the time. Heston starred in the title role as a Jewish nobleman who's enslaved by the Romans and ultimately wins his freedom. It cleaned up at the Academy Awards, receiving 12 Oscar nominations and winning 11.

During the eight-month shoot, Heston recalls 11-hour workdays and a determined director in Wyler. "I would have to say he was the best director I've ever worked for," he says. "I heard stories from Bette Davis and people that he would do 15 to 20 takes...but he just wanted it right. He was determined to get it as well as he could get it."

Heston also dispels a few nagging rumors about the film. Contrary to some beliefs, no one was killed during filming, he said. And he debunked claims that a red Ferrari can be seen parked in the corner of the arena during the chariot race, or that Heston's wristwatch shows up in some scenes.

The legendary actor also takes on the debate over who actually wrote the screenplay. Karl Tunberg initially received Ben-Hur's sole credit, but others contributed to the script including author Gore Vidal, Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Beherman and Christopher Fry.

Heston, however, claims Vidal's involvement has always been embellished a bit. "Gore Vidal has made a career over the last 30 years that he made a contribution," Heston says. "They decided they wanted some rewrites, so they brought him in to do a scene. He wrote a scene between Messala and me, but all three of us said, 'No,' it wouldn't work. It wasn't used.

"In all that time, he insists he wrote everything up the chariot race, which is simply not true."

Ben-Hur aside, Heston also had a few more words on everyone from Barbra Streisand to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and director Tim Burton's much-anticipated Planet of the Apes remake:

  • On his upcoming cameo in Planet of the Apes: "I won't tell you," he snaps playfully, before adding, "I play this girl ape..." Heston seemed even less forthcoming about who's taking his place in the lead role. When asked about Mark Wahlberg, Heston responded: "I'm sorry, I haven't seen any of his work. Has he done a lot of stuff?" But Heston then added, "He's got a good director."
  • On the prospect of an actors strike this summer: "Because I differ from them on some of the issues, I don't want to comment on it."
  • On whether Arnold Schwarzenegger would make a good Republican candidate for California governor: "Arnold's a pretty bright guy; I know him more than a little, and I know there's talk of him running for governor. So I wish him luck. Tough job."
  • On whether Republicans are mistreated by the press: "I have never felt I was being ill-treated by the press--ill-treated by Barbra Streisand, maybe. But Ms. Streisand I suggest is inadequately educated on the Constitution of the United States."