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?
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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.