Claude Heater, the famed opera singer who appeared with his face unseen as Jesus Christ in William Wyler's epic 1959 Ben-Hur, has died. He was 92.
A noted Wagnerian tenor, Heater died May 28 at St. Mary's Medical Center in San Francisco of natural causes after a long illness, according to an announcement on his foundation website.
While performing in Rome, Heater was spotted by Ben-Hur production manager Henry Henigson, who was struck by the singer's "magnificent" voice and "beautiful spiritual face," Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons wrote in 1958.
Heater was then tested and hired to play Jesus in the MGM feature. "Now here is the strange part: They had to go to Europe to find this boy, who was born in Oakland, California," Parsons wrote.
"Mainly, they were interested in hands. They wanted strong, but sensitive, hands," Heater said in 1992. During production, he noted that "there were people on the set who would see me, drop to one knee and make the sign of Christ."
As filming progressed, Heater was given more time in front of the camera and a few lines, but British law at the time forbid Jesus to speak or his face to be seen if he were a "secondary character." So, Heater as Jesus appears only from behind, as when he gives water to Charlton Heston's enslaved Judah Ben-Hur.
In the 1993 documentary "Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic," Heater is shown front and center in a costume test photo.
In 2003, Heater and Heston reunited at a screening at the Motion Picture Academy in Los Angeles, the last two remaining actors from the film, winner of 11 Oscars, including best picture.