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 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.”