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Love and Chariots II: Heston Responds to Vidal

June 24, 1996

Ralph Winters (who won for his editing of "Ben-Hur," one of the 11 all-time record Academy Awards the film earned) phoned me, outraged. "What the hell is this Vidal yelling about? I was on the film from the start, all day, every day for nearly two years. He was around for maybe a week" ("Writing 'Ben-Hur': On Love in the Time of Chariots" by Gore Vidal, Calendar, June 17).

"Don't worry about it, Ralph," I said. "In the autumn of his years, now that [director William] Wyler's gone, Mr. Vidal is determined to persuade someone . . . anyone that he wrote the first half of 'Ben-Hur' (at least)."

In the half page The Times afforded him to vent his waspish animus, Vidal was at some length to dismiss both my work and character, as well as William Wyler's, while pointing out the more memorable of his own screen credits. (He did indeed write the film classic "A Catered Affair," for example.)

He did not, however, write any part of "Ben-Hur" as shot, edited and still shown around the world. If he had, as a member of the WGA, which controls all screenwriters' credits, he would've had a shared credit with Karl Tunberg, who was nominated for his screenplay.

Wyler tried very hard to get the WGA to allow some screen credit to Christopher Fry, who wrote on the film through eight months of shooting. (Vidal's name didn't enter the discussion.) In the end, they turned Willy down, though in my speech to the academy membership for my own award, I thanked Willy, Sam Zimbalist and Christopher Fry.

Let this be an end of what is by now a grossly overworked discussion. As Ronald Reagan pointed out, facts are stubborn things.

Sorry, Mr. Vidal.


Beverly Hills

. . . And Readers React

I had a hard time believing that human beings are as hateful and brutal to one another as they are. Then I read Gore Vidal's Counterpunch "essay" about "Ben-Hur" and Charlton Heston.

Here are two world-renowned men of the arts, who are polar opposites in just about every way. Vidal makes Heston look like a witless "cornpone" who wasn't perceptive enough to know what a scene's subtext was. And Heston portrays Vidal as a man who, due to some personal flaw, has decided to fill his resume with lies.

So, what's their motivation? Obviously, these two men loathe each other's politics, and they both feel the need to attack each other's personal achievements. This distasteful little war of words is a lot like the country's current political process. Personal attacks do two things: They feed our hunger for tabloidal slop and they seem to attract a lot of coverage. If Vidal and Heston were less "irritated," would The Times have given the story so much space or even printed the letters at all?

Charlton Heston, over the last 40 years, has given filmgoers some epic images. Even Mr. Vidal must agree that in each of Heston's films, he had a director to satisfy, a screenwriter's words to bring to life and, in most roles, was playing a larger-than-life character. He didn't do things without the collusion and approval of others. And, he does have a best actor Oscar on his mantel. So, whether Vidal likes Heston's political beliefs or not, he cannot dismantle the man's achievements so easily.

Gore Vidal is clearly a brilliant and gifted writer. I have read several of his books and, if he did write as much of "Ben-Hur" as he claims, I enjoyed his work there as well. It's just too bad that so many of his private conversations, agreements and offers involved people who, because they are long dead, cannot confirm the claims in his article.

But whether Heston is a cornpone or Vidal is a liar is not the issue. If men of such high intelligence and fame can feel such animosity toward each other over such silly issues, it makes all the hate in the world a lot more predictable. If you're famous and you need to express your hate, you get media coverage. But, if you're a nobody, you get a gun or build a bomb.




Regarding the recent entertaining exchange between Gore Vidal and Charlton Heston, might I suggest that The Times sponsor something like the old Vidal/Buckley debates? You could put it in your editorial section and call it "Chariot Left" and "Chariot Right."


Los Angeles


I saw "Ben-Hur" many years ago. I wish now that Heston had written it and that Vidal had played Ben.


Los Angeles


My uncle, Karl Tunberg, wrote and received sole screenplay credit for the 1959 film version of "Ben-Hur." Now in 1996 Vidal claims credit when those who might tell us otherwise have all passed away. As an active Writers Guild member and nephew of former guild President Karl Tunberg, I am deeply offended.


Westlake Village


Several times, Vidal alludes to Heston's being a spokesman for the National Rifle Assn. and the National Review, as if these associations prevent Heston from speaking the truth about a film of his. While I, a liberal, scarcely sympathize with Heston's politics, there is probably no greater number of liars in the NRA than the ACLU.




Neil Simon should write "The Sunshine Boys II," the story of Heston and Vidal in the same room. Now that I'd pay to see.


Sherman Oaks

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