- Nov 15, 2001
- Real Name
- Neil Middlemiss
Son to one of the most celebrated actors of the 20th century, it is perhaps no surprise that Fraser would find a career in that field writing, directing, and producing. He wrote and directed Treasure Island, where he worked with his father, and served as director for films like Needful Things (1993) and Alaska (1986).
Fraser spoke to us about the impact of The Ten Commandments, his father’s cinematic legacy, and who he sees as the DeMille of our time.
The Ten Commandments 4K UHD is available now from Paramount Home Entertainment.
HTF: Paramount’s release of The Ten Commandments on 4K UHD disc is glorious. Have you had a chance to watch it yet?
Fraser Heston: It's pretty cool. I saw it both on the big screen when they did the initial restoration [a few] years ago. And, really, they were smart enough to do it at such a resolution that it was only now when people have 4K TVs that they can now come out with a new version. And to me, it kind of looked like you could step into the screen and jump on a chariot and go roaring off with Pharaoh across the desert.
HTF: I saw the Blu-ray release back in 2011 that was based on that work and it was really something. But you're right, the TVs and home theaters couldn't quite reproduce all that detail inherent in the picture. But what we get now with the 4K is the glorious detail from that restoration of such an epic production. It seems like Moses was the role your father was born to play, almost a predestined fact. Sometimes I'll look at a role and I'll wonder what other actor might have been able to do something comparable or bring a different take to a role, but I cannot imagine any other human being who could have done what your dad did in bringing Moses to life. Why do you think that is?
"He grew up on the stage. And I think he was able to pull off those more classical roles, to play Englishmen and Jewish prophets and pirates and astronauts and just about anybody you care to name. Who else would play a Spanish knight named El Cid that nobody ever heard of and pull that off?"
Fraser Heston: Well, you're right. I think The Ten Commandments and the role of Moses is in my DNA and certainly became a big part of my father's DNA. I mean, I was literally born a few months before I did that little scene as the baby Moses. And I think Dad felt the same way, that it was just the right part for him at the right time. He did The Greatest Show on Earth for DeMille, a couple of years before, and played the circus manager opposite Jimmy Stewart. And he played a supporting role. He was so grateful to Mr. DeMille, as we all called him, for giving him that part. And put his heart and soul into it. And you're right, I think partly because he was a classically trained Shakespearean actor. He grew up on the stage. And I think he was able to pull off those more classical roles, to play Englishmen and Jewish prophets and pirates and astronauts and just about anybody you care to name. Who else would play a Spanish knight named El Cid that nobody ever heard of and pull that off? He just had that ability to sort of meld his acting persona into characters that, you know, you wouldn't see Rock Hudson playing that part or something like that.
HTF: Do you find yourself watching your father's films? I mean, the classics, Ben-Hur, Planet of the Apes, and what do you see when you watch those films?
Fraser Heston: Well, I like to look at them on two levels. I think on one level it's fun to watch stuff that I know are classic films. And it's also interesting to watch Dad. I mean, this is his legacy. He'll be with us forever. Which is pretty nice. Obviously, we have family photo albums, many of them taken by my mother, Lydia, who needs a lot of credit for all of this because she was so supportive of the family and of my father. She became a professional photographer, abandoned her career as an actress, by the way, and recorded everything. So, we had that legacy as well as the films themselves. But I do like to watch the films. And when I became a filmmaker myself, I was able to work with my father and to be able to relate to him as a collaborator, as a fellow artist, which was wonderful. You know when we did Treasure Island, that was my first film as a director. And it was not an easy thing to make, but it was very easy to work with my dad. And I'm pleased to say we remained friends; our father son relationship got even stronger. And our collaborative relationship as a director and actor grew from that as well. We went on to do several other jobs.
HTF: Do you miss directing?
“I think in some ways, the best gig in Hollywood is being a writer, because you often actually get paid for your work as opposed to a producer who might work years and never make a dime if the movie doesn't get made or get cut out of the project, God forbid.”
Fraser Heston: You know, it's a heck of a lot of work, directing. Orson Welles said it's the best set of toy trains any boy ever had. And I guess that's right. I do love it and do have a couple of things planned that I would like to direct. But I think in some ways, the best gig in Hollywood is being a writer, because you often actually get paid for your work as opposed to a producer who might work years and never make a dime if the movie doesn't get made or get cut out of the project, God forbid. But a lot of writers wouldn't agree with me. But having done both writing, producing, and directing, I guess directing is the hardest; it's the most demanding. Physically it's like climbing Mount Everest. By the time you get up to Camp Five, you sort of say, "Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into here?" But I think all the creative crafts in the film business are wonderful and demanding and challenging and frustrating and marvelous.
“Dad used to say that the inheritor to C.B. DeMille was probably Steven Spielberg or James Cameron.”
HTF: And now, speaking of directing, there doesn't seem to be a director out there today that I would call the spiritual heir to Mr. DeMille, or at least who does the kind of traditional and grand spectacle filmmaking that he was a legend at doing and in many ways helped define. Do you think the industry needs more of what he brought to Hollywood, or do you think that we're in too different a time, that the technology's perhaps taking us beyond that style of filmmaking today?
Fraser Heston: Well, Dad used to say that the inheritor to C.B. DeMille was probably Steven Spielberg or James Cameron. He never worked with Steven, but he did work with Cameron in True Lies. So ironically, his career spanned from Cecil B. DeMille all the way to James Cameron, which is sort of amazing when you think about it. I think Spielberg is a good example because his sense of scale, but that kind of down-to-earth folksy storytelling that Steven was so good at and still is. I mean, I think he's one of our greatest living directors. It is very reminiscent of DeMille, though, because he never lost touch with his audience. DeMille said from the very first picture he made in Hollywood-- I think the first picture made in Hollywood was The Squaw Man in 1914, something like that. He said you've got to give the audience what they want, and you can't try to tell them what they want. And I think Spielberg is a great example of that, and that partly accounts for his success.
HTF: Now your parents were married at Grace Methodist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Now, Greensboro and the Triad region of North Carolina is where I moved when I first came to the United States, gosh, 25 plus years ago. I've recently relocated to a different part of the state, but I had no idea of that connection to your parents. I know that your parents were also connected with the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Theatre in Asheville, which is a beautiful part of the state. Do you know what the draw to North Carolina was for your folks?
Fraser Heston: It just got him. I think the initial one was that he was going into basic training in the Army Air Corps just before he went away to serve in World War II, where they finally sent him to Alaska, of all places, and flew missions and B25s on the northern islands of Japan. So, he didn't think he'd be coming back, so he thought, "Well we'd better get married before I go." And they did. He was in training somewhere near North Carolina. And then I think when they went back to do the theater there, it was just a gig for them. They were theater actors out of the Midwest, out of Northwestern University in Chicago, which was a wonderful - still is - great theater school, produced a lot of marvelous actors. And they took any gig they could get, and they loved it. They did sort of summer stock and things like that there and then eventually migrated to New York and pounded the pavement for years, living in a walkup flat in Hell's Kitchen, trying to find work as an actor, both of them.
HTF: What would you say to Paramount, who has just done the world a solid favor by releasing The Ten Commandments on 4K? How would you define the importance of preserving films like The Ten Commandment, restoring them, and then releasing them to the public in the highest resolution possible so they can see and experience them the way that we're now able to with The Ten Commandments. Why is that so important?
“…kudos to Paramount. Good on you, Paramount, for taking the expense and the trouble to preserve some of your classic work. And I hope they go on and restore other films.”
Fraser Heston: Well, you put your finger on it right there. It's a part of our legacy, not only in Hollywood and in the film business, but I think the history of America is kind of defined in many ways by film. It's one of our best exports, if you will. It's the American art form, after all. We may not have invented the automobile or the airplane, but we certainly created the film business as we know it. I think preserving those films is really important. So, kudos to Paramount. Good on you, Paramount, for taking the expense and the trouble to preserve some of your classic work. And I hope they go on and restore other films. I'd love to see them preserve Will Penny, the Western my dad did which may be one of his best parts ever. Or if not, actually go and remake it and let me direct it.
HTF: What a great way to end on. Fraser, thanks so much for speaking with us today. It's been a great pleasure.
Fraser Heston: It's my pleasure, Neil, anytime.