Charlton Heston’s Last Stand

In the Democrats, he’s found an enemy more formidable than a planet full of apes. He may well have swung the election toward Bush. How did the veteran actor become Hollywood’s most effective political activist?

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.