Photograph by Brett Panelli
In the gilded ballroom of the John Marshall Hotel, they have gathered to bear him witness. Richmond, Virginia, is the last stop on the grueling October campaign swing that has hurled Charlton Heston through America's heartland like a righteous plague upon the Democrats. On Tuesday, he mustered voters in Grand Rapids and Flint, Michigan; Wednesday, he marched across Pennsylvania. Just this morning, his bass resonated in Roanoke, stirred the Chesapeake Conference Center at noon. As darkness now settles on the capital of the Old Confederacy, it is about to make its final call.
Two thousand National Rifle Association members press their bodies toward a stage where two video screens project Heston's colossal image. There he is, wielding the staff of Moses, holding the reins of Ben-Hur's horses, staring piercingly into the distance with a shotgun broken open at his shoulder.
"Actor! Author! Civil Rights Champion! Patriot!" the film's narrator cries above the trumpets' blare. "He hasn't just spoken the word of God, he's also spent his life defending the freedoms God has given us. Today, with your rights under the fiercest attacks in history, Heston is there."
A figure emerges from the wings, more than six feet tall but appearing shorter, his torso inclined forward. Speedo propylene beach slippers make the journey to the podium with hesitant steps. Hip-replacement surgery and old age have dampened the fabled dynamism: no more battles with broadswords; no more chariot races for him. But above the uncertain legs, the chest is still massive, the cheekbones still chiseled, the broken nose as resolute as the NRA eagle on all those baseball caps bobbing above the crowd. As Charlton Heston approaches the microphone, his lungs swell, the vocal cords making their splendid, vibrant music out of ordinary air. "I'm inclined to quit while I'm ahead," he jokes. "But I won't. No!"
Not while he's ahead, and not while he's behind. At a time when publicists filter and calibrate and homogenize movie stars' thoughts to square them with mass opinion, the 77-year-old Heston has spoken his mind—and shot off his mouth—with more reckless joy than any other actor. As president of the National Rifle Association for the last three years, he has not only been Hollywood's most visible reactionary, but its most effective activist.
Gazing out at those adoring faces, he can sense the turning tide, the footfalls of his adversaries—who are the adversaries of freedom—in full retreat. "You know, if Vice President Gore had the guts of a guppy"—he pauses for the laughter that always greets this alliterative blossom—"he'd just stand up and say, `I was wrong. I pretended to be in favor of gun rights, and I really am not.'" Should Gore prevail, he warns, the Democrat will be handed "the power to hammer your gun rights right into oblivion. If freedom is in danger, it is our duty to be blinded to all else."
When his words turn guttural, the tendons along Heston's neck stretch taut as a bowstring. The audience, absorbing his message of blood, sacrifice, and peril, also undergoes a transformation. A thousand jawbones strain toward the speaker and are suddenly as resolute as Heston's own. "Instead of fighting to create a nation, we are fighting for its survival," he proclaims. "When you pull the lever to vote freedom first, you are doing no less than our forefathers pulling the trigger against the tyrants at Lexington and Concord."
In the afterglow of the speech, dozens linger, as they always do. There have been trembling men and women, veterans and steelworkers and housepainters and mechanics and businessmen, hands that pushed toward him an eight-year-old boy and the voice that said, "I want you to meet my son Charlton." So many of these Southerners and Midwesterners saw The Ten Commandments in church when they were four, five, six. In their earliest recollections, Heston's is the face of the prophet who spoke directly to God. His career as a heroic leading man—as Moses, as Ben-Hur, as El Cid—has given him matchless reserves of political capital. It is inconceivable that he would be so warmly embraced as a conservative champion had he made his reputation in the kind of slimeball parts favored by Robert Mitchum or Peter Lorre, or if, like his fellow conservative Tom Selleck, he had merely been Magnum P.I.
In his hotel room, flanked by a mammoth basket of fruit and candy still wrapped in its cellophane, an exhausted Heston marvels at the tremendous response received. "I've never seen anything like it," he says, smiling broadly. "It's opening night of an enormous hit."
When delivering his television pitch for the NRA, Charlton Heston sits in an oxblood wingback chair, a fire flickering in the hearth to his right. This colonial set bears no resemblance to the modernist home he commissioned off Mulholland Drive in 1958, when Ben-Hur was in preproduction, and where he and his wife, Lydia, raised their son and daughter. Designed by a Frank Lloyd Wright disciple, the house is all Palos Verdes stone and black terrazzo; the living room's wraparound glass threatens to throw you into the depths of the canyon below.
If only Heston were the ideological parody political opponents would like him to be. Instead, he's as wildly divergent as the sober NRA set and the architectural triumph on the ridge. Yes, he is an implacable conservative, but almost all his closest friends are liberal Democrats, and he counts his participation in the 1963 March on Washington, where he led the artists' contingent, among the proudest moments of his life. Yes, he's a pious scourge in public, but at home he's the well-traveled connoisseur with not a trace of ill temper, who's prone to profanity and tears.
On TV, he serves himself up as the willing victim of sitcom gags, giving stiff competition to his would-be satirists. (By his own count, he's appeared on Saturday Night Live five times.) He's written two urbane memoirs on the acting life, but his most recent book, The Courage to Be Free, is a seething jeremiad on the decline of America. He regularly attacks the moral fiber of the entertainment industry that nurtured him, yet he's that industry's loving elder statesman, the chief eulogizer of his generation. Although his political adventures of the past decade have eclipsed his recent cameo roles, he still considers himself foremost a working actor. Every day, he wakes at 5:00 a.m. and wades into his pool to rehearse either Prospero's farewell from The Tempest, or the death of Moses.
On this brisk morning, Heston opens the door in a shimmering shirt with a green houndstooth pattern. He holds up his gold and diamond cuff links to reveal the two halves of Michelangelo's most famous fresco. "There's Adam," he says, studying his left wrist first, "and there's God. I'd recognize him anywhere."
Mounted on the entrance of his study are two brass rings from the house of Hur. A Post-it note above the left one presents a challenge to his nine-year-old grandson: "Jack. Do pull-ups." The walls gleam with artifacts of a movie career largely spent in mortal combat: medieval swords, a Civil War service revolver, a gnarled staff, a battle-ax rimmed with fake blood. A small bust of Winston Churchill scowls atop his computer monitor, while on the seat of a rough-hewn bench, a bearded Planet of the Apes action figure stares out at the horror of the future.
In the middle of the outdoor rec room is a director's chair of tanned cowhide. Here Heston once sat for an interview with a reporter from the BBC, a memory so delicious that he can't help sharing it now. "Very competent, obviously," he says. "She's taking her notes and talking about stuff, and then I hear a coyote yapping and snarling down there." He nods to the shrubbery below.
"Oh my God, that's terrible," the BBC reporter exclaimed. "What is that noise?" Heston told her he was sure a coyote had just found lunch. "Oh, that's dreadful," the reporter responded.
Heston then made her an offer. "Well, I've got a 20-gauge," he said. "I can kill him for you if you want me to."
"She said, `Oh, no, don't do that,'" Heston chuckles. "She was really trapped."
In the hallway leading to his bedroom. Heston has hung 20 small paintings of himself in as many roles: Ben-Hur bends his charioteer's whip; Cardinal Richelieu schemes in crimson robes; Michelangelo broods with his paintbrush. Of all these incarnations, in only one is Heston smiling. Grizzled and missing a leg, Long John Silver flashes a homicidal leer. "Pretty grim fella most of the time," Heston jokes.
Not just grim, but fixated. In the movies, Heston's been at the beginning of civilization and its end—alone on Mount Sinai and marooned on the Planet of the Apes. In the 1950s and early '60s, when American self-confidence held strong, Heston was Ben-Hur, Moses, El Cid, the leading man of antiquity, the deliverer of Judeo-Christian civilization. Amid the assassinations, burning cities, and scandals of the late '60s and early '70s, the actor made a millennial leap into the terrible future, to become civilization's last horrified survivor. He drops to his knees at the conclusion of Planet of the Apes and pounds the sand, yelling "Goddamn you all to hell" to the wrecked Statue of Liberty. Not just the United States, but all humanity is lost. He's a wounded cop in Soylent Green's latter-day Manhattan, screaming out the awful secret of a society that eats its own flesh. In The Omega Man, Heston is the sole uncontaminated white male left in Los Angeles, self-inoculated against a germ warfare plague that has turned mankind's other remnants blue.
This feature was originally published in the February 2001 issue of Los Angeles magazine.
The actor has made some smaller films that cast him in an unfamiliar light, where he's liberated from being Charlton Heston. In the best of them, Will Penny, he plays a middle-aged cattle hand so mournful and at such a loss for words that he threatens to disappear into the Sierra snow. He's also been a champion of brilliant temperamental directors, handing Orson Welles his last crack at a studio picture with Touch of Evil and starring as an unbalanced cavalry officer in Major Dundee, Sam Peckinpah's warm-up to The Wild Bunch. Heston's directorial debut, 1973's Antony and Cleopatra, was a noble critical and commercial sacrifice made at the altar of Shakespeare.
But this was not the Heston his fans were prepared to accept. He may have been the first major Hollywood star to operate outside the deteriorating studio system, but his enduring film persona—mighty and outsize and just this side of corny—could easily have been calibrated by Samuel Goldwyn or Louis B. Mayer. Indeed, his two most towering vehicles, The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur were remakes of silent films, directed by William Wyler and Cecil B. DeMille, both former silent auteurs who were nearing the end of their careers just as his began.
In the 1950s and early '60s, Heston was the anti-Brando, straightforward and earnest and resolutely square. And, at the summit of his career, he was the greater box-office attraction. Ben-Hur won him an Oscar, reigned in theaters for two years, and reaped more Academy Awards than any film before it. Heston was not just DeMille's and Wyler's but an entire aging America's vision of what heroic young manhood should be and remain forever. Unlike many stars of his era, he embraced historical research, not Stanislavsky contortions. "Method acting," says Heston, returning to his study, "is like masturbating. It's a lot of fun, but you don't accomplish much."
A week after the election, in the lobby of Oxford's Randolph Hotel, Lydia Heston notices the stain on her husband's tie. She has weathered the transatlantic flight to England better than he has. Heston, who'll be addressing the Oxford Union this evening, is rumpled. His navy blazer gathers at the small of his back in accordion creases; the hair on his crown, always so smooth, is for once as anarchic as his untamed brows.
Heston studies the big discolored blot upon the gold silk but tells Lydia not to worry. "My speech will be so spellbinding," he assures her, "that they'll never notice the stain on my tie."
"You must get rid of it."
"Oh, darling," he sighs, "I like this tie."
"Do you have any others?"
He doesn't, but sitting down to lunch, she discovers that his traveling assistant has packed three of his own. Jon Carter, a deferential 25-year-old Virginian, is more than happy to loan one. "Let's have a fashion show!" Lydia enthuses.
"You know the secret of a happy marriage," Heston says over his salad. He and Lydia have been married 57 years. "Have you remembered the mantra, Jon?"
"Three words, yep," Carter says. "`I was wrong.'"
"That's the most important thing," Heston says. "Never mind `I love you.' In all honesty, things are important to a woman that aren't important to a man. You say, `For God's sake! What difference does it make if it's blue or green?' It does! It does! `I was wrong' is a safety mark, a lifesaver that will hold you."
Lydia laughs. "That's because you're wrong so much of the time."
As Hollywood's preeminent public citizen steps into the Oxford Union to a thunderous ovation, he is still wearing the soiled tie. The balcony that runs the rim of the room is packed close. Faces peer down at him, as grotesque in the half-light as Oxford's fabled architectural gargoyles. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Benazir Bhutto and Mother Teresa, O.J. Simpson and, just last night, Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson—these are among the luminaries who have come here before him. "The Colossus of Hollywood," the Oxford Union secretary says, whip, ping up the crowd. "Moses himself! Mr. Charlton Heston!"
So many factors conspire against him this evening, not just jet lag. The first speaker in the Union's history to employ a TelePrompTer, he is confounded by the British model's small typeface and the glare bouncing off its glass. At NRA rallies, the device serves him splendidly. There his eyes penetrate the panels with unflappable assurance. Tonight the students look up at a face squinting in confusion. In his speech, "wigged judges" mutate into "winged judges" before he corrects himself. His hands occasionally grip the lectern as if to squeeze the proper words out of the wood.
"I'd rather stand onstage and work with the words of the Bard," he says, "but in the spirit of this revered Victorian chamber, I've been asked to address the gun issue." It is a speech of parboiled statistics and outright provocations; a diatribe against the drug thugs of Manchester; a gloomy assessment of his country's cultural, economic, and racial climate.
The Second Amendment, Heston says, "was part of our Constitution because of what your nation of kings did to our nation of commoners." That gets him a good laugh, but his safety-through-firearms credo is difficult to digest in a nation that confiscated all handguns in 1997 and whose murder rate is six times smaller than the United States'. "I know," he says, "the Labor lapdogs of the BBC duck their tongues and nod their heads, look down their patrician noses at America's firearms freedoms. But I'll be safer when I get off the plane in Los Angeles tomorrow"—here, he's interrupted by raucous laughter—"than the innocent citizen that's now walking the streets of London."
Before NRA audiences, Heston had been so robust. But now, what with the malfunctioning TelePrompTer, an unfamiliar script, and an audience whose mood swings from loud approval to jeers on the turn of a phrase, he appears befuddled. For once, the public Heston seems an elderly man.
After losing the chamber with his politics, he begins to win it back with stories of Hollywood, burnished and honed through years of retelling. He talks about the long-ago exhilaration he felt at taking medieval Valencia as El Cid, and how Kenneth Branagh convinced him he could make something splendid of the player king in Hamlet. Hearing his tale of how orangutans, gorillas, and humans stuck to their own species at lunch breaks as Apes was filming, the room bathes him in partisan cheers as boisterous as the House of Commons. The students applaud as the second-unit director once again allays Heston's fears of finishing second or third in the soon-to-be-timed climax of Ben-Hur: "Chuck, you just stay in the chariot. I guarantee you're going to win the damn race."
During the question-and-answer session, one of the Oxford gargoyles makes a wisecrack about his TelePrompTer.
Heston raises his head toward the darkness, and his eyes dance with delight. He's back in form. "That's a heckler, isn't it? I must tell you a funny story. I always hope for a heckler, because I love to tell it!" Seventy, eighty years ago, he begins, a George Bernard Shaw play opened in London to such frenzied acclaim that the audience demanded Shaw take a curtain call, an honor most playwrights won't receive in a lifetime. "He bowed," Heston says. "They shouted even more—except one man in the front row of the balcony who was leaning over saying, `Rubbish! Rubbish! Nothing but rubbish!'"
A pause for the ages, as the movie star summons up an Irish brogue. "Shaw said, `I'd be inclined to agree with you, my friend. But what are we two against so many?"
Back home, Heston shows off a pair of Turkish pistols once owned by Thomas Jefferson, along with a letter signed by the founding father boasting of their accuracy. "They're in beautiful condition," Heston says, plucking one of the muzzle-loaders off its peg. He marvels at the deity with the flowing hair engraved on its brass. "That's Diana," he says. "Princess of the hunt." The actor sleeps with a Glock and a Colt .45 beneath his bed.
Heston was an engaged Hollywood citizen years before he championed the Second Amendment. He served six terms as Screen Actors Guild president in the '60s, longer than anyone but Ronald Reagan and Barry Gordon, and his dedication was crucial in getting the American Film Institute and the Ahmanson Theater afloat. In the '70s, Heston began to direct these imposes to politics. He joined the NRA and loaned his face to its advertising push. In 1980, he campaigned for Reagan, who appointed him cochair of the Task Force on the Arts and Humanities, where he served for six months. He turned out not to be the hatchet man his foes expected him to be.
Had Heston stopped there, he would be regarded as just another wealthy neoconservative with a resume of public service, content to attend black-tie presidential dinners and occupy an occasional seat on Air Force One. But in 1992, he launched one of the most effective feats of shareholder activism in U.S. corporate history.
At a Time Warner board meeting, he stood to recite select passages from Ice-T's Body Count CD. In stentorian tones, he read: "I'm a cop killer. Better you than me. I know your family's grieving. Fuck 'em. But tonight we're going to get even. Ha ha ha ha ha!" In front of two thousand fellow shareholders, he confronted CEO Gerald Levin about profiting from such irresponsible material. "Let me ask you: If this piece were titled `Fag Killer,' or `Die, Die, Die, Kike, Die!' wood you still peddle it?" Time Warner eventually dropped the rapper. Heston considers Ice-T his "most significant victory in the public sector since the civil rights marches of the early '60s."
So how did Heston, whose own CD collection tends toward opera, acquaint himself with the work of Ice-T? His educator on this issue, as on many others, was public relations executive Tony Makris, whose Alexandria, Virginia-based Mercury Group handles both the actor's account and the NRA's.
The two met in 1980, as allies against the nuclear freeze movement in California; during the past 15 years, the Alabama-born Makris has emerged as Heston's political adviser. He's his strategist and scheduler, and chief executive director of the actor's personal political action committee. All Heston's speeches are generated by Makris associates.
Tipped off about Ice-T's lyrics by a Washington lobbyist, Makris began to mobilize. He alerted Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president and chief lobbyist, who issued the group's statement of condemnation. This netted a KABC-TV news item in Los Angeles.
While Makris stirred the pot, Heston was away in England starring in A Man for All Seasons. When he got back, a heap of faxes from Makris was waiting on his desk. They had their desired effect. "He said, `I want to get all over it,'" Makris remembers, "`and right away.'" In the weeks before the shareholder meeting, Makris arranged reinforcements. "We flew some cops in who had been shot with 12-gauge shotguns," he says. "We're talking about people who are horribly disfigured, crippled. Their faces are blown off and they're blind." Time Warner barred the policemen from the meeting, but it didn't matter. "You could see all these blue-haired ladies that have portfolios," Makris says, "and they're all going, `Oh my God, this is horrible! Just horrible!" Within days, the story was in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on the ABC news.
In 1998, Makris's two major clients were in a sense merged when the NRA elected Heston president. His tenure there has proved so incendiary that few now remember he was the candidate of reconciliation. The organization was divided between militia-affiliated upstarts and the Washington-based insiders, led by LaPierre, who had turned the organization into one of the most influential lobbies in the capital. Fearing an irreparable schism, the insiders needed a moderate candidate with unimpeachable credentials. Who better than Ben-Hur? Heston won in a landslide. The NRA went on to offer a silver bullet engraved with the actor's signature as part of its annual $25 membership; pickups in the rust belt began to flaunt bumper stickers declaring CHARLTON HESTON IS MY PRESIDENT; and the group swelled from 2.9 million to nearly 5 million. Last year, the NRA changed its bylaws to award Heston an uncontested third term.
As political guru, Makris has reconciled himself to being slighted whenever Heston is offered a film cameo or another shot at the stage. "This damn acting thing gets in my way," Makris joked with Heston some time ago. Then, he turned serious. "You may not ever understand this, but your last great role may be political."
Heston settles onto a couch to sip coffee and munch chocolate-chip cookies fresh-baked by his chef. Over his left shoulder, an unframed NRA poster vies with a large Andrew Wyeth landscape. He tells of a contentious meeting held here in his living room 37 years ago. Marlon Brando had grand schemes for James Garner, Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster, and other actors gearing up for the March on Washington. As SAG president and leader of the arts delegation, Heston declared that if they were going to chain themselves to the Lincoln Memorial or lie down on Pennsylvania Avenue, they could count him out. Brando backed down.
The march was not Heston's first civil rights demonstration. A few years earlier, he had answered the call of his closest friend, Louis Jolyon West. Later chair of the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at UCLA, West was then a professor at the University of Oklahoma, and the two friends teamed up with a black colleague of West's to desegregate local lunch counters. Throughout the '50s, Heston had been an enthusiastic Adlai Stevenson supporter. At the 1960 Democratic Convention, Stevenson remained his man, but like many in Hollywood he was eventually won over by John Kennedy's charisma.
So why did he veer sharply rightward after the March on Washington? Heston has his own explanation: a life-changing event he's dramatized for conservative audiences and enshrined in his 1995 autobiography, In the Arena.
A dirt road outside Marysville, California, in the fall of 1964. Lyndon Johnson is about to trounce his archconservative rival, Barry Goldwater, in the presidential campaign. Heston is stuck in traffic, en route to the set of a medieval saga called The War Lord, when he glances up from his limousine and spots a Goldwater billboard. He reads the slogan: IN YOUR HEART, YOU KNOW HE'S RIGHT. "Son of a bitch," he remembers saying to himself, "he is right." This, Heston contends, "was my Saint Paul on the way to Damascus, my epiphany."
Too mythic to be true, the story contradicts Heston's own diary entries, published in 1976 as The Actor's Life. According to his journals, he continued to support Democrats throughout the '60s. He considered making a TV appearance in favor of a gun-control initiative in 1968. "You've got to have the moderate opinions heard on this," he writes. "Somehow, on any public issue, you hear only the wild-eyed screamers on both sides." In 1969, a group of California Democrats tried to draft him for the U.S. Senate. Not until 1972 did he cast his first Republican vote for president, joining millions of other Democrats who abandoned George McGovern for Richard Nixon.
If the road to Damascus doesn't take us far enough, there's always boilerplate psychology—a childhood trauma buried early in Heston's autobiography.
A Michigan rooming house at the height of the depression. Heston is ten years old, and his parents have just separated. He's leaving his father, his home in the woods, his one-room schoolhouse for Georgia. His mother tells him to pack his belongings in a travel trailer. The boy shoves his most beloved possession—the single-shot Savage .22 his father had given him—under the trailer tarp. The next morning it's gone, stolen in the dead of night. If he is extra upset about the theft, his mother doesn't notice. He's been weeping profusely. "My memory is that I cried for three days," Heston says. "That can't be true, but I did cry a lot."
This theory is buttressed by Walter Seltzer, the actor's closest living friend and the producer of The War Lord and Will Penny. Like most of his friends, he's a staunch Democrat. Seltzer attributes Heston's shift to reuniting with his dad in the last years of his life. "Possibly it was his father. He was a hard-core Republican. I think that influenced him."
What Seltzer can't explain is the vehemence of his friend's rhetoric. "I certainly don't like his political attacks," he says. "It's out of character for him. In the liberal days, he was much more civil to people of the other persuasion." When Heston speaks in public, his invectives can be ugly. He assumes a tone he doesn't use in casual conversation, where, in the main, he's gentle, grandfatherly. It's the inverse of Nixon, whose private utterances were filled with vulgar diatribes, but who, before an audience, kept these thoughts to himself.
"Mainstream America is counting on you to `draw your sword' and fight for them," Heston declared in a speech a few years ago. "These people have precious little time and resources to battle misguided Cinderella attitudes, the fringe propaganda of the homosexual coalition, the feminists who preach that it is a divine duty for women to hate men, blacks who raise a militant fist with one hand while they seek preference with the other." The address won him space on David Duke's Web site.
The day after the Columbine massacre, Heston contended that the tragedy was a result not of too many guns but of too few. "If there had been even one armed guard in the school," he said, "he could have saved a lot of lives and perhaps ended the whole thing instantly." In an article excoriating the actor, The Economist magazine, no friend to liberals, noted that there was an armed guard at Columbine. Making the case for the Second Amendment, Heston has compared American gun owners to Jews victimized by the Nazis.
He's still adding to the record. In Grand Rapids two weeks before the election, he told his NRA audience that if Gore had performed his gun-control about-face "in any other time or place, you'd be looking for a lynching mob." Some of the crowd yelled back, "Let's do it. I've got a rope."
Heston says he wasn't thinking about blacks in the South when he talked about lynching, although, he admits now, "I shouldn't have said it." That David Duke could embrace him so warmly, he also agrees, is regrettable. Still, he says, "if you're going to shoot your mouth off, you're going to stumble."
Relaxed and well rested the Monday after Thanksgiving, Heston is on the phone with his agent, Jack Gilardi. "Hello. Hi, Jack. We did, indeed. We went to our son's house and had a fine time. Of course, of course ... Yeah, that has an interesting appeal. How much does he want to charge for it? Five! I don't think so. I'll talk to Wayne today if I can—if not today, tomorrow." The conversation shifts to a TV role Heston's been offered. "I haven't seen the script yet. Sure, that would be fine. Okay, my friend. Sure enough. God bless."
So what was that all about? "There's this guy who has an extraordinary collection of firearms, all of which have been used in movies," Heston says. "That gives them a certain cachet." But he's asking $5 million to turn them over to the NRA museum, and the actor doesn't think that will fly. Gilardi, though, is a wonderful agent, and if he asks Heston to forward the offer to Wayne LaPierre, he will.
The TV offer—a guest appearance on Cursed—is one of those comedy gigs that don't often come his way. "I would play myself, but myself who has fallen, and he's hit in the head and is healthy but forgets he's Charlton Heston. He thinks he's a plumber." The money, he says, "is appropriate. And that's what I do for a living, after all." He's offered mostly supporting roles now. He played a minor part in the 1999 Oliver Stone film Any Given Sunday, and last fall he flew to Israel to portray an archaeology professor killed off in the early stages of Jean-Claude Van Damme's The Order. He recently sat through two hours of facial casting for his cameo in Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes. "I'm going to be an ape this time," he says, "an ancient and very important ape."
While he won't be retiring from films, the NRA presidency is another matter. Had Al Gore prevailed, Heston might be more inclined to consider a fourth term. But with a Bush presidency finally assured, he feels less urgency. "I don't know who's going to challenge the NRA now," he says, chuckling. "So it might be that it's time for me to turn in my suit, or my handgun. Scrub that!"
Those thunderous ovations he drew not just in Chesapeake and Richmond but across West Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas in the closing weeks of the election: Could he have tipped the balance in Clinton's and Gore's home states toward Bush? Or in West Virginia, where Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one yet Gore was denied the five electoral votes that would have brought him victory? "We said from the beginning," Heston says, "the NRA—gun owners—can win the election."
The hard work done, he can now concentrate on holiday shopping for his grandson. He's already taken the nine-year-old out for target practice. After talking it over with the boy's father, he is buying Jack his first rifle. It's a .22 Winchester, a superior model to the single-shot Savage that his dad gave him when he was nearly the same age. Doubtless Jack's grandfather will impress upon him the inadvisability of leaving it tucked under a trailer tarp. To his last breath he will know he has done as much as any American to ensure that Jack's gun will never be taken away.
"We were out shooting clays just yesterday, and also some pistols," Charlton Heston says, his blue eyes brightening with the mingled pride of grandfather and public citizen. "He didn't do badly. Like anything else, it's something you have to learn."