On a fringe of white Jamaican beach, under the lengthening shadow of a mango tree, the Treasure Island film crew is nearing the thorny end of another scorching day’s shoot. Already there have been interruptions for balky smudge pots and temperamental muskets. And now, in the middle of the scene, as the green jungle parrot on Long John Silver’s shoulder suddenly decides to flap off, the exasperated actor blurts out, “Cut!”
“Cut?” flares a voice from the tangle of cameras and lights nearby. “Who said cut? I’m the director here, and we don’t cut until I say cut!”
The mutinous actor in question could perhaps be forgiven the breach in etiquette. At 65, Charlton Heston has some 55 feature films on the movie’s first-time director—who also happens to be his son, Fraser, 34. The Hestons and their mostly British crew are hard at work on a $6 million, two-hour version of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, scheduled to air next year on Turner Network Television.
Fraser Heston, the only son of an actor who has portrayed nearly every epic hero short of God, is no stranger to the perils of location work. At 2 months, playing the infant Moses in The Ten Commandments, he had to be rescued from the bulrushes when his cradle sprang a leak. “Fray’s been on movie sets all his life,” boasts Heston Sr. “Even at the age of 2, he knew that you weren’t supposed to talk when the director called ‘action.’ On the set of The Big Country [William Wyler’s ambitious 1958 Western], he made a little noise while the cameras were rolling. Then he burst out, ‘I ruined the take! I ruined the take!’ ”
For Fraser, whose screenwriting and producing credits include such other projects with his father as the 1982 feature Mother Lode, that childhood meant that his earliest memories are mingled with Hollywood make-believe. “I remember riding in a chariot at the age of 3 or 4 during Ben Hun,” he says, “and my father coming home in his gladiator outfit with blood all over him. I just thought he was a chariot driver, I imagine.”
There are also memories of a favorite adventure tale that “my father read to me over and over when I was 5.” Unlike the 1934 MGM version, with Lionel Barry-more, or the 1950 Disney interpretation, the Hestons’ Treasure Island won’t be a PG affair. “This isn’t Captain Hook, and these aren’t cartoon pirates,” says Fraser, whose cast of cutthroats includes Oliver Reed, Julian Glover and Empire of the Sun’s Christian Bale, now 15, as the intrepid young hero, Jim Hawkins. “The current equivalents of these pirates are Colombian drug traders,” says Heston Sr. “They won’t just kill you if you cross ’em. They’ll kill all your family, too, just to make sure. We both wanted to make this a tougher film. In the MGM version their idea of British accents was to have Jackie Cooper say ‘Bless my soul.’ ”
In its quest for authenticity, this Treasure Island features at-sea explosions, menacing brigands with rotting teeth and, in the role of the pirated ship Hispaniola, the same fully rigged vessel built in 1960 for the Marlon Brando version of Mutiny on the Bounty. Producers have even hired a strapping amputee as the one-legged Silver’s stunt double. “It all looks so real,” says Reg Silk, 50, a championship British archer who stands in for Heston. “One of the pirates had his throat cut the other day and I nearly threw up.”
Though he may be the most visible example of second-generation show business, Fraser is not the only Hollywood heir on the set. Second unit director Joe Canutt, 58, has followed in the footsteps of his father, Yakima, the legendary stuntman who coordinated Ben Hur’s action sequences. Makeup chief Daniel Parker, 28, is the son of the late Charles Parker, a renowned British makeup artist whose credits include Lawrence of Arabia.
So far, the set’s younger members are keeping up with their elders. Heston Sr., says Parker, is “a lovely, lovely man. The only problem I have is keeping him in the chair. Every time an assistant director comes around, he jumps up and says, ‘Are you ready for me now?’ ”
“He’s like a racehorse,” says Fraser. “He hears his name and he’s off.”
“I like to work a little faster. It keeps the juices flowing,” concedes Heston. “Learned it from Orson Welles. He made Touch of Evil in about 31 days.”
The director may call his leading actor Dad, but otherwise their on-set relationship is strictly professional. “Sometimes he plays my side of the coin too much,” says Fraser, “and I have to say, ‘Look, you just get the scene right and let me worry about how to get the next explosion rigged.’ ”
That’s not all that young Heston has had to worry about. There was also the truckload of critical electrical equipment held up for two days in customs. Then there was the challenge of setting up shots on the creaky, 29-year-old Hispaniola, a task that one crew member likened to “pushing an elephant up a hill. In the mud.”
“As a first-time director, the pressure really has very little to do with being my father’s son,” says Fraser. “People are constantly coming up saying, ‘S’cuse me, guv, which costume do you want?’ ‘What about the scar?’ ‘The rostrum just collapsed!’ ‘The radios don’t work!’ All this stuff comes down on you, and you’ve got to stay calm under fire.”
Which he does when a local crew member falls from a 14-foot ladder (mercifully, without injury), when half the crew gets seasick during filming aboard the replica Bounty and even when an accompanying documentary team loses $100,000 in equipment to the sapphire blue briny.
Despite such glitches, production is running only slightly behind schedule, and crew morale is running reasonably high. And if, as Fraser hopes, his directorial efforts result in “the definitive version of Treasure Island, the best that ever was,” then all will have been worth it—and two generations of Hestons will be happy. “Chuck didn’t ever discourage him from other aspects of the business,” says Lydia Heston, Charlton’s wife of 45 years. “But he was always worried that Fray would want to be an actor. He feels it’s such a rotten, inconsistent way to earn a living.”
He need worry no longer. “One thing I have learned from directing this film is that there is no other thing in the world I would rather be doing,” says Fraser. Hollywood, he adds with a grin, “is kind of like the Mafia. If you’re born into it, I guess the only way out of it is to die.”