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?

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.