Could Orson Welles have directed Charlton Heston in Richard Matheson’s “I AM LEGEND”?
With the impending release of Warner Bros. last man on earth story, I Am Legend, I recently re-watched Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, the second abortive attempt at bringing Richard Matheson’s classic end of the world novel to the screen, and noted a few interesting similarities between it and Welles’ Touch of Evil, as they were both shot by that superb cameraman, Russell Metty.
Most intriguingly, I recalled a piece by columnist Marilyn Beck, claiming that Charlton Heston wanted to do the movie after reading Richard Matheson’s novel at the suggestion of none other than Orson Welles, while they were working together on Touch of Evil.
Here is Marilyn Beck's column from 1971, which leads off with a bit of gossip about the steamy interracial sex scenes that, if they occurred at all, ended up on the cutting room floor:
HOLLYWOOD - Feb 10, 1971. The Charlton Heston-Rosalind Cash "I Am Legend" love scenes must be something else again. All still photos and negatives which recorded that bit of business have been, locked in the Warner, Bros.’ vault, and no one's quite sure when they'll be released — if ever! Rosalind, the shapely black singer who gets her first big movie break in the Heston starrer, wasn't too happy about that explicit bit of footage right from the beginning. She didn't mind doing it for the sake of theater audiences, mind you, but in front of all the cast and crew she considered it more man a trifle embarrassing.
Heston, who's now in the midst of "I Am Legend" post-production, hasn't decided what his next cinema venture will be. But chances are, whatever develops, his wife of 27 years will be involved in it, too. Lydia Heston is such an expert with a camera that she's been employed as a special photographer on both "I Am Legend" and Chuck's "The Hawaiians."
No, she didn't shoot those love scene stills now cooling in the vault. But she did do some layouts of Chuck and Rosalind at the Hestons' hilltop home.
Charlton Heston is terribly excited about "I Am Legend." Actually, he has been for the last 14 years. The story first grabbed him back is 1957, after be read the novel at Orson Welles' suggestion. Chuck, who's a whiz on the big things, but who frequently has trouble remembering mundane matters like his phone number and book titles, asked producer Walter Seltzer in 1957 to hunt down "My Name Is Legend" for a possible film project. Seltzer eventually found a work bearing that name. It was a 1,400-page anthropological text. And when they finally located the science fiction novel Heston was actually interested in, a European film company was already adapting it under a different title, (“The Last Man on Earth”).
Now that, 14 years later, Seltzer and Heston have finally gotten together to film the tale of the few who survive a biological holocaust, much of the original story has had to be changed to make it believable to today’s more with-it, more sophisticated audiences.
Like many stories involving Welles, the facts seem to have gotten a bit garbled by Ms. Beck. According to Charlton Heston’s own published journals, the book Welles gave him to read was not Matheson's I Am Legend, but George R. Stewart’s 1949 book Earth Abides, also about a worldwide plague that leaves only a handful of people alive. It was turned into an effective two part radio show on "Escape" in 1950 that had echoes of Welles' own famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast.
In his fascinating journals, Heston talks about how he and Welles planned a filmmaking partnership towards the end of shooting on Touch of Evil, with Earth Abides being considered as one of many possible projects. Other titles bandied about, included Lord Jim, and Don Quixote.
Here are the relevant excerpts from Charlton Heston’s journal entries for 1957:
March 19: We finished up the scenes in the hotel room and the lobby (on TOUCH OF EVIL). They tell me you have to come early to get seats at the studio running of our dailies now. If we can just get the title changed now… I'm inclining increasingly toward BORDERLINE.
March 25: The dailies were brief, good shots of me clambering around those derricks. We shot, with immense effort, a scene with Joe Calleia and me checking the bugging equipment. Very proppy and difficult to shoot. At three in the morning, outside his house in the car, Orson and I killed a bottle of brandy and more or less agreed on partnership, which seems a very exciting prospect to me.
March 27: The shooting went swimmingly tonight, and the adjective is thoughtfully chosen. Thank God it was the warmest night we've had because I spent a lot of it treading water across that damn antique travesty of a Venetian canal. Orson also was very excited about a novel he's found to make (George R. Stewart’s 1949 book Earth Abides).
March 30: I came in after dawn this morning, too full of the exhilaration of work and watching the sun come up to go to sleep. My son took his first steps one year ago today, and I almost feel I'm only beginning to do the same on this film. Orson is certainly the most exciting director I've ever worked with. God… maybe it will all really begin to happen now.
March 31: A lazy, late-sleeping, tennisy Sunday morning, filled with sun and Fray's laughter and hot cakes after four sets. After lunch and the nap this night shooting schedule seems to require, even on a day off, I drove over to Orson's to pick up Earth Abides, the science fiction novel he thinks might do for a film.
April 2: Last day of shooting on TOUCH OF EVIL. We finished work with a final dawn shot, of Orson's death, in an overturned chair on a dump heap, and then had a celebrant drink or two in the trailer. Orson and I took along the last magnum of champagne and found a place still open to give us bacon and eggs to go with it. A hell of a picture to work on… I can't believe it won't be fine. It was wonderful to loaf tonight, all the same. We had steak and saw Orson's LADY FROM SHANGHAI on TV. It's good, but not as good as ours, I think.
April 3: Had a dubious conference on the sales campaign Universal plans for TOUCH OF EVIL. After driving Orson home, I gave him a copy of WASTREL. I read the script again and I still think it's damn good.
April 4: Herman Citron (Heston's agent) seemed enthusiastic about the Welles partnership: Orson was enthusiastic about WASTREL. I wasn't enthusiastic about WRITTEN ON THE WIND tonight. I was right to turn it down.
April 9: Lunch with Herman and Orson, who now feels WASTREL will take too careful a scripting job to have ready by summer, so he want to go ahead on the science fiction thing or something else first. I'm disappointed, but willing to play it his way. I still think this road is right for me.
April 12: At lunch Orson expounded the reasons why he feels WASTREL ought not be the first project we do.
April 14: Orson sent over LORD JIM and THE SINGER NOT THE SONG, but I didn't crack either one.
April 15: Orson thinks we might be well advised to find something to do at Universal, to fill the gap till we can get a script on WASTREL.
April 29: Herman has many misgivings about the Welles partnership, but I still think he's wrong. I'm fully aware of Orson's chameleon nature, but I'm more aware of his talents, and anxious to use them.
June 6: Orson's off to New York to do the Steve Allen Show, so he can hardly have anything started before I'm finished with THE ANDERSON COURT MARTIAL show for CBS.
June 17: I very nearly finished my dubbing on TOUCH OF EVIL with a long session today. Orson continues to amaze me with the ideas he has. He created a climax for me in the bar scene that wasn't in the printed footage, simply having me dub one speech in four little pieces. Whatever happens, I am in his debt.
June 28: My work at Universal consisted merely of a few off screen lines for Joe Cotten's benefit, but it was nice to be in on the windup of shooting. At lunch Orson advanced still another idea… a tele-film of DON QUIXOTE, with me as the eccentric Don. What, if anything will come of this, I can't imagine. Orson's argument is original and telling however. "All great actors," he says, "are character actors."
July 16, New York: I knew it: Just as soon as I committed to Wyler's film (THE BIG COUNTRY), Orson called in great excitement. I must come down to Mexico, immediately, to star in a tele-film of the second part of DON QUIXOTE, for God's sake! We are to make it in six shooting days and I'm somehow to get out to the Coast in time to do my fittings for both projects before the end of this week. It's too tough to bring off; yet I can't turn it down.
Of course, Heston never made Don Quxiote with Welles, but he kept in touch with him through the years (whenever he could reach him), and often thought about asking Welles to direct projects.
Now, we fast-forward to 1970, when Heston became interested in doing Matheson's I Am Legend. One has to wonder if Heston considered asking Welles to direct it, since it was Welles who suggested that they make Earth Abides in the first place. In fact, in his journals, Heston reveals that while he was getting ready to shoot The Omega Man, he did ask Welles to direct another film, the Shakespeare adaptation he eventually directed himself of Antony and Cleopatra! Unfortunately, by that time, Welles had already begun work on The Other Side of the Wind, and was turning down all other directing projects offered to him.
However, Heston and producer Walter Seltzer both liked cinematographer Russell Metty, and used him to shoot The War Lord in 1964 and hired him again to shoot The Omega Man. So in watching the opening scenes of The Omega Man, you can see some shots that appear to be influenced by Welles camera-style in Touch of Evil: Charlton Heston is driving in the deserted streets of downtown LA in an open convertible, with the camera mounted on the hood, while newspapers are flying all around him. This is similar to the wide-angle shots of Heston driving his convertible down the back streets of Venice, shot from a camera mounted on the hood of the car.
Russell Metty worked with Welles several times, begining with the tests he did for Citizen Kane, until his first breakout job as cinematographer on Welles' The Stranger. Since Heston, Metty and Welles got along so well together on Touch of Evil, it's really too bad Heston never thought about bringing in Welles to re-write and direct The Omega Man in Los Angeles, as he did for Touch of Evil. Since Welles was in Los Angeles working on The Other Side of the Wind in fits and starts, he couldn't commit to go to London to shoot Antony and Cleopatra, but probably could have easily directed the local Los Angeles shoot for The Omega Man, reuniting him with Heston and Russ Metty, and allowing him to create what might have become a science-fiction masterpiece, just as Touch of Evil, was his noir masterpiece.
According to Heston, Metty and the hack director they ended up with (Boris Sagal), clashed from the start on the picture, probably because of Sagal's TV background. Looking at the film now, it's pretty easy to see why, as Metty most likely objected to Sagal's ridiculous overuse of the zoom lens.
Here's Metty talking about his tools of the trade around the time of Touch of Evil:
We're using a Mitchell camera that exposes 24 frames a second, or ninety feet a minute. Its rate of exposure can be slowed down or speeded up, so for example, when we photograph a moving car, we exposed it at 20 frames a second, to speed up the action of the car. The aspect ratio is 1:85: 1, or the standard pre-CinemaScope frame size, almost twice as wide as it is high. A 50mm lens will approximate the human eye, but most of the time we are using a 30mm lens or wider. We can go as wide as a 18mm lens for certain shots. The photographic quality of the picture is adjusted for the level of realism. By using less light, we get a higher contrast, so we get blacker blacks, whiter whites and fewer grays.
Now, here are excerpts from Heston’s journal entries for the fall of 1970, when he was in pre-production on The Omega Man, and still hoping to get Orson Welles to direct him as Mark Antony in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra:
September 26, London: I ran three films today... well, not all of ULYSSES, but enough to see that Barbara Jefford's a fine actress, with perhaps not quite enough sexual charisma (classy syntax for "not sexy enough") to play Cleopatra. On film, anyway. On the other hand, from the Maugham film we saw with Hildegarde Neil, I couldn't tell whether she's quite up to acting Cleopatra, but she seems to have the requisite erotic X. Orson's CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT is remarkable. Peter Snell and I were both knocked out by it, not only as a film, but by Orson's Falstaff... perhaps his best since KANE. He's done an impressive job, making one film out of four of Shakespeare's plays. The battle, grinding down almost to slow motion, is especially good. I think he should direct ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, if he will.
October 1, Los Angeles: Back home, I made a fruitless attempt to reach Orson today. This is the kind of game you have to play with him. He's working, and maybe really couldn't call back; God knows, often I can't. The difference is that with Orson, you always assume his telephone neurosis is responsible, simply because you know it exists.
October 3: I got the ANTONY script to Peter Bogdanovich to give to Orson, since he's likely to see him before I can.
October 5: Orson called to say that he liked the ANTONY script. I'm pleased, but not surprised. (Surprised that he called, of course.) While casting for I AM LEGEND, we saw a number of actresses, one or two actors for Richie and Dutch, and looked at film on others. This is always a hard time for me. I hate to be involved in these readings and interviews. No one remarkable came up today, though one girl is possible.
October 6: I had word that JULIUS CAESAR is doing very well in its first week in Los Angeles. This is very meager evidence, but augurs well. [In the end, it did only moderately.] Our casting on LEGEND proceeds very slowly. Warner's are reluctant to move on Tony Zerbe. I hate to use muscle, but I'm convinced he's the best actor for the part. He is enormously flexible and hasn't been used up in TV. The UCLA seminar on CAESAR went well. Students are easy to talk to, perhaps because they're so used to having it done to them.
October 8: We're not getting very far in our search for the girl in I AM LEGEND. It should be an easy part, requiring only a certain swinging, pert quality, coupled with as much physical attractiveness as possible. So far, we've only come up with two girls that seem close. It's tough, of course. For years, most black actresses have been conditioned to register as ladies. We want a girl for this role, I hope we can find one.
October 10: Orson called again this morning, and I went over to discuss ANTONY with him. He seems most interested in directing it, as indeed he should be. Still, with Orson you never know. He said to me, "Do you have a great Cleopatra?" "We don't have any, yet," I replied. "You direct it and we'll pick an actress and you make her great." "Not with that part, dear boy," Orson rumbled. "Believe me, if you don't find a great Cleopatra, you can't do this play." If he comes to London to test actresses, then I'll believe he wants to do it. I hope he does. He could make it the kind of picture it deserves to be.
October 19: Still nothing from Orson. We read an actress for LEGEND (Judy Pace) today who seemed very good; the first one to come on with the flip kind of thing we want for the part, and the first one with anything like a string of professional credits behind her. We'll look at film on her tomorrow, but this seems the best bet we've had so far. I've screwed myself up next week on my trips. I'm committed to go to Chicago for SAG on November 1, and there may be no time to do that between New York and London. If I could contact Orson, I'd know a little better what the hell is going to work there.
October 20: Orson finally called, he won't be free for ANTONY. This is either true, or he doesn't want to do it. In any case, we won't have him. I've now come to feel the best course is to direct it myself. None of the two or three men who could really do it can (or will). If there is a film in the world I can direct, it’s this one.
Of course, The Omega Man turned out to be a mess, and apparently Welles was never really interested in Richard Matheson's novel in the first place. But when I talked with Richard Matheson, I told him about Marilyn Beck's phoney story about Welles giving the book to Charlton Heston and asked him if he ever heard of anything like that happening:
RICHARD MATHESON: No, but I find that amusing. I wonder if Heston even realized he was doing my book when he did The Omega Man? If he liked the book, he certainly didn't allow much of it to remain on screen!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did Orson Welles ever indicate he wanted to make I Am Legend?
RICHARD MATHESON: No, not to me. I met Welles when they were making Touch of Evil at Universal. He was there looking at a rough cut of The Shrinking Man and he narrated to trailers for The Shrinking Man, as well. But I hear stories like that all the time. Jim Nicholson (the President of American International Pictures) told me that when AIP was making deSade, John Huston, who was acting in the film had said, "I would have been happy to direct it, why didn't you ask me?" That made my day, after it was done so weirdly by Cy Enfield, because deSade was one of the best scripts I've ever written.