The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Charlton Heston on genius and himself.

Charlton Heston, the film actor and icon, is dead at 84.

Enough will be written of his life, for it to be needless for me to add more to the biographical material, other than to address some highlights to support what I am going to write.

Charlton Heston cut a heroic figure: a chiselled face, broad shoulders and resonant voice. He was, as a person, the kind of figure that, in fiction, we are accustomed to associate with the hero. Physically, he was a stereotypical heroic figure. In consequence, Hollywood, being a very visual place, cast him as many an historical hero. He became, for us, the canvas on which heroic historical figures would come to life.

He played the "greats" from Moses, in the Ten Commandments (1956), to the eponymous El Cid (1961), Michelangelo, the genius artist, in The Agony and the Ecstasy and his most famed role, Ben Hur (1959). Also memorable were his turn as a marooned astronaut in Planet of the Apes (1968) and a detective in Soylent Green (1973).

These were films of my youth, endlessly played and replayed on British television. I had no idea they were so dated, almost all of them having been filmed before my birth. Seeing those dates, makes me realize how fast time is passing, that my childhood films should have been so distantly made.

Now, as few actors do, Charlton Heston got the chance to play many of history's most interesting people. He played them with conviction and brought a heroic quality to each of them. In the cliche he was "larger than life"...and it seemed apt that he should be called upon to play figures whose deeds made them so. In being as he was, physically, he made his performances believable and what his characters did - historical figures that they were - more believable too. With Charlton Heston as their embodiment, it was easier to believe great things of them.

Yet, what did Charlton Heston think of these people he played?

Once, long ago, when I was growing up, I got the chance to see Charlton Heston in interview on television. He made a remark that I have never forgotten. On the matter of playing Michelangelo, he said words to the effect: "He makes me feel small." By this he meant, quite clearly, that the greatness of Michelangelo's genius, made him feel a small human by comparison.

I saw in this an unexpected humbleness for one who was, then, one of the most famous of film stars, his name and face known everywhere. Yet, I saw, too, that in playing his characters he had, to some extent - and this is, I suppose necessary for a good performance - come to understand his characters. He came to see what they were - and could measure who he was by comparison.

Charlton Heston was saying, in his own way, that a genius outshines a film star - that, though perhaps less famous than Heston was at the time, Michelangelo (and by implication his type of person) was far the greater man.

Perhaps, in being called upon to play truly great men, Heston became aware of his own limitations. Thus, he was able to make that comment about genius, which was most uncharacteristic of a typical film star, with their great impression of their own worth.

Heston, as he himself assessed, may not have been a genius - but he was a very convincing and entertaining actor who brought a sense of authority to all the roles he portrayed. While not as great as an historical figure, in his own estimation, he lent an impression of greatness to them, so that they might come alive for us.

It is sobering to note that, by his passing, another of the cultural figures of my childhood has died. It will not be long before they are all gone - for now that I approach the middle of life, they are all approaching the end of theirs.

It is interesting to compare Heston to today's actors. By comparison the typical actor of today is a limp creature, devoid of presence. There was something of the grand about him, whenever he spoke or acted on the screen. Perhaps Hollywood doesn't want its heroes to seem great anymore - or perhaps the people who watch them don't.

He is survived by two children and three grandchildren.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and one month, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and seven months, and Tiarnan, two years exactly, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 7:37 PM 


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