Charlton Heston proudly boasts that he's played "more biographical figures than any American actor."
According to his last count, Heston has personified 15 famous folks from the annals of history, including Moses, John the Baptist, Sir Thomas More and Andrew Jackson (twice).
And he's brought such legendary literary figures to life as Ben Hur (for which he won a best actor Oscar), Macbeth, Capt. Queeg and Long John Silver.
So it seems elementary that Heston is adding the equally larger-than-life Sherlock Holmes to his acting canon. Heston stars as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's analytical British sleuth in the mystery "The Crucifer of Blood," premiering Monday on TNT. Heston joins the list of such distinguished actors as Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, John Gielgud, Robert Stephens, Jeremy Brett, Roger Moore, Christopher Lee, Christopher Plummer and Ronald Howard, who have played Holmes in films, TV and radio. Heston also is one of the few Americans to attempt the part.
Doyle didn't write "Crucifer of Blood"; the mystery-melodrama is based on Paul Giovanni's 1978 hit play, which combines elements from several Doyle stories including "The Sign of Four."
Though he's never played Holmes on film until now, Heston is no stranger to the role, starring in the acclaimed Ahmanson Theatre production of "Crucifer" 11 years ago. Jeremy Brett, who plays Holmes on PBS' "Mystery!" series, played the loyal Dr. Watson in the Los Angeles staging. The TNT production features Richard Johnson as Watson.
"Crucifer of Blood" was a family affair for Heston: His son Fraser adapted, directed and produced the movie. Father and son also collaborated on TNT's "A Man for All Seasons" three years ago and on "Treasure Island," which aired earlier this year.
The Hestons attempted to mount a feature film production of "Crucifer" a decade ago without success.
"We (also) explored it briefly as a live television thing, but that never works so we put it aside," Charlton Heston said. "It didn't occur to me again (to do 'Crucifer') until after the extraordinary and gratifying success we had with 'Treasure Island' and Turner said to us, 'What do you want to do now?' "
Resurrecting Holmes after a decade, Heston said, was a rewarding experience. "I speak now as an actor," he said in his commanding baritone. "To explore a part in film that you have done on stage is very learningful . I think you can bring another whole layer of weight to the part. You have just done it before and you do it better. You have staked out the ground a little bit and when you come back to something, you bring to it your own increasing maturity. And one hopes one is better as an actor."
Though Heston has never been a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, he knows why the sleuth has captured the imagination of millions for more than a century. "In my opinion, it depends not on the plotting of the dialogue, which is very good, but what is extraordinary is the friendship, the Holmes-Watson friendship," he said. "There's nothing like that in fiction I can recall. "
Fraser Heston, who is a Sherlock Holmes buff, agrees. "It's one of the greatest friendships of literature," he said. "I see them as two individuals with very different tastes and different backgrounds, who, like a lot of people, are opposites who find themselves to be a very good team. Holmes relies on Watson for a great deal of scientific information. He (Watson) is a brave, intelligent, energetic man. He's not at all like the buffoon Nigel Bruce played so lovingly (opposite Basil Rathbone's Holmes)."
"Nigel Bruce was terrible casting for that part," Charlton Heston said. "Watson is not a fool. Frankly, Holmes wouldn't be a friend of Nigel Bruce. Richard Johnson plays Watson as a good doctor, a decent, intelligent man."
Just as Holmes and Watson worked well as a team, so do the Hestons.
"I have for a number of years now worked with directors younger than I, usually directors of greener reputation," Charlton Heston said. "I believe firmly and always have that while the actor, especially an actor in my position, is in a strong position to argue his own view of a scene or a line in a script, I always say to directors who don't know me, 'I have a loud voice and I use it vigorously. If you can't persuade me, tell me to do it and I will because you are the director.' "
Heston doesn't have to explain anything to his son. "He knows my work better than anyone really," Heston said. "He has seen it all and he was there when much of it was done. He has no genuflectal deference toward me as an icon. Every actor wants to be directed. I am enormously comfortable around him."
"He knows me so well there are no egos involved," Fraser Heston said. "I don't have to pussyfoot around. I can say, 'That's no good; that's awful' and he will say, 'OK, tell me what to do to make it better.' He is very good about that. He is very easy to direct."
And both Hestons are not afraid to argue. "There are many times I know it makes sense to defer," Fraser Heston said, "and I will go, 'What the hell. You have made 57 or 64 movies, you probably know what you are talking about.' And there are other times when I will say, ' Chuck, I can't cut the scene that way. . . .' "
"The Crucifer of Blood" airs Monday at 5, 8 and 10:30 p.m. on TNT; it repeats Tuesday at 1 p.m.; Saturday at 5 p.m.; Nov. 10 at 7 a.m.; Nov. 24 at 5 p.m.; Nov. 28 at 5 p.m..