From Acting to Activism, an Imposing Aura

Academy-Award-winning actor Charlton Heston passed away on April 5, 2008. His film career spanned more than five decades and more than 85 roles, including Moses in "The Ten Commandments" and the title role in "Ben Hur." Heston is also remembered for his political activism and tenure as president of the National Rifle Association.
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 7, 2008

Charlton Heston, an Academy Award-winning actor who starred in such epics as "Ben-Hur" and "The Ten Commandments" and then became a conservative political activist and influential president of the National Rifle Association, died Saturday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 84.

A family spokesman did not release the cause of death, but Heston said in 2002 that he had symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease. In a message at the time, he told fans: "I've lived my whole life on the stage and screen before you. I've found purpose and meaning in your response. For an actor there's no greater loss than the loss of his audience."

With his deep voice and noble physique, Heston was a symbol of confident authority on film for five decades. He parted the Red Sea as Moses in "The Ten Commandments" and won an unforgettable chariot race in "Ben-Hur." In 1994, he was the boss of spy Arnold Schwarzenegger in "True Lies" and joked that the film's director, James Cameron, "said that I was the only actor who could plausibly intimidate Arnold."

Of more than 85 movie parts, "Ben-Hur" (1959) was a career-defining performance. It won 11 Oscars, including best actor for Heston, who played a Jewish prince seeking revenge on those who harmed his family and sent him into slavery.

Heston's physical stature was crucial to grand-scale and adventure films in the 1960s. He was Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel in "The Agony and the Ecstasy"; an 11th-century Spanish warrior in "El Cid"; British Gen. Charles "Chinese" Gordon fighting an Islamic warrior priest in "Khartoum"; and an astronaut held captive by a society of intelligent gorilla rulers in "Planet of the Apes."

Critic Pauline Kael wrote in her "Planet of the Apes" review: "With his perfect, lean-hipped, powerful body, Heston is a godlike hero; built for strength, he's an archetype of what makes Americans win. He doesn't play nice guy; he's harsh and hostile, self-centered and hot-tempered. Yet we don't hate him because he's so magnetically strong; he represents American power -- and he has the profile of an eagle."

Compared with such peers as Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Burt Lancaster -- all of whom would play down their brawn to convey a character's anguish or vulnerability -- Heston portrayed men of action who seldom displayed flaws.

Important exceptions were "Will Penny" (1968), in which he played an aging, illiterate cowboy, and "Number One" (1969), as an older gridiron star. Heston said the loner character in "Will Penny" came closest to how he saw himself.

Of "Number One," New York Times film reviewer Howard Thompson wrote that Heston "tackled a starkly unadorned role in one of the most interesting and admirable performances of his career" and called the film a "brooding, scorching and beautifully disciplined tour de force for the actor."

Heston wrote that he was deeply saddened by the critical and box office failure of his starring roles in "Julius Caesar" (1970) and "Antony and Cleopatra" (1972), movie adaptations of Shakespeare's works. He directed the second and called Shakespeare "the measuring stick against which you measure an actor's work."

He said doing those smaller pictures with limited audiences made it important for him also to star in high-salaried projects during the 1970s, including "Earthquake" and "Airport 1975."

Robert Osborne, a film historian and host on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, said that Heston "was a great type for a leading man. . . . If he hadn't been so big and stalwart looking and well-built, he probably would not have had a fraction of the career he did. He was a good enough actor that he fit into" the action roles.

Off the screen, Heston was known in Hollywood for his activism. He served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1965 to 1971, helped create the American Film Institute and voiced support for the National Endowment for the Arts. He received the 1977 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his service to the industry.

At first a liberal, he increasingly found himself agreeing with conservatives on matters ranging from national defense to popular culture. He said he always enjoyed adopting causes before they became popular, whether defending civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s or the gun lobby in the 1980s and 1990s. He was politically independent for decades, and even after joining the Republican Party, he remained close to many Democratic friends.

Heston became a hero to conservatives when he stood up at a Time Warner shareholders' meeting in 1992 to protest an Ice-T hard rock song written from the point of view of a cop killer. There, Heston read the song's lyrics in slow, deliberate tones and helped bring pressure on the company to act against Ice-T, who removed the song from the album.

To some in the National Rifle Association, Heston's effectiveness on the pop music issue and his public stature made him the ideal person to revive morale and membership inside the gun lobby. A longtime NRA member, Heston had made television ads for the organization for many years before he was elected president in 1998.

"We have been demonized by the media, and this is a way to say, 'Hey, Moses is on our side,' " NRA executive Wayne LaPierre said then.

The NRA was still a strong lobby, but it had suffered public relations problems. Some in the lobby wanted to court people affiliated with militia groups, and LaPierre, although he later apologized, called federal law enforcement agents "jackbooted" Nazis. LaPierre's comment caused many politicians, including former president George H.W. Bush, to distance themselves publicly from the NRA.

Heston used his celebrity to open doors on Capitol Hill and attract crowds to gun rallies nationwide. He defended the NRA during a period of high-profile gun attacks in schools; he said such deadly incidents were "a child issue, not a gun issue." He became increasingly pointed against Democratic politicians who tried to blame the killings on NRA's legislative influence.

At a 2000 NRA rally in Charlotte, Heston declared the presidential race a referendum on gun-control legislation and criticized Democratic candidate Al Gore. Holding aloft a Revolutionary War rifle, Heston said, "When the loss of liberty looms as it does now, this is for those who would take it -- and especially for you, Mr. Gore -- from my -- cold -- dead -- hands!"

That year, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and other GOP leaders credited Heston with energizing the Republican base for electoral victories.

Heston aroused great anger from the political left. Filmmaker Michael Moore's Oscar-winning "Bowling for Columbine" (2002) tried to portray Heston as callous toward shooting victims. But Moore's treatment of the visibly frail actor and what some reviewers contended were flawed facts might have backfired.

Al Gore told the New Yorker magazine: "I really appreciate what [Moore was] trying to do, but I wouldn't have thought before seeing the movie that anyone could have aroused any sympathy in me for Charlton Heston. And yet he did."

Heston stepped down from the NRA presidency in 2003. The same year, President Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, for his accomplishments in movies and politics.

Heston repeatedly declined to run for elective office. "I've been president of the United States three times," he told the Chicago Tribune, citing his film parts. "And chancellor of England, and I ran the French government. And I led the Jews out of Egypt. What more could I want?

"That's the joke answer. The real answer is I've been approached a couple of times . . . but to do it, I would have to quit acting. I haven't got it right yet, and I'm not going to quit until I do, so much for that."

John Carter was born in Evanston, Ill., on Oct. 4, 1923. He spent his early childhood in St. Helen, Mich., where his father was a deputy sheriff.

In a memoir, he wrote that his parents' divorce when he was 9 was a wrenching surprise. He soon took his stepfather's surname, Heston, to hide what he considered the shame of the divorce. His professional name was a combination of that and his mother's maiden name, Lila Charlton.

The family moved to a poorer neighborhood in the largely affluent Chicago suburb of Wilmette, Ill. Heston spoke of himself as a shy loner -- gangly, pimply and ill-dressed -- and stuck with the nickname "Moose" because of his already-deep voice. He was in the rifle and chess clubs in high school and tried out for a play.

Onstage, Heston found a place to distinguish himself. He outgrew his physical awkwardness and became a leading man in school and community productions.

Heston spent two years at Northwestern University on a drama scholarship before leaving in 1943 for military duty during World War II. The Army Air Forces sent him to the Aleutian Islands; because of his noncombat role, he later wrote that he "attended World War II."

In 1944, he married a Northwestern classmate, actress Lydia Clarke, and they settled in New York after the war to pursue acting jobs. Heston had small Broadway roles and appeared on early television broadcasts, including adaptations of great literary works on the CBS anthology series "Studio One."

Heston began his Hollywood career as a replacement for Burt Lancaster in the gambling drama "Dark City" (1950). Heston also had virile, slightly menacing roles in "Ruby Gentry" (1952), "The Naked Jungle" (1954) and "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952), director Cecil B. DeMille's circus drama. DeMille then cast Heston in "The Ten Commandments" (1956), a hugely popular film.

Heston used his growing clout to work with the best directors.

He was already cast as a Mexican narcotics officer in the thriller "Touch of Evil" (1958) when he said he "bullied" Universal Studios into hiring co-star Orson Welles to direct the movie. The film was released on the second half of a double bill, and only years later did its reputation soar because of Welles's fresh take on the low-budget "B" film.

To work with director William Wyler, Heston agreed to play the secondary lead opposite Gregory Peck in the western "The Big Country" (1958). Wyler was impressed with Heston's performance as the bullying ranch foreman and cast him in "Ben-Hur" after a long search for the right leading man.

"Ben-Hur" was filmed in Rome and, at $15 million, was the most expensive film yet made by MGM, which was dangerously close to bankruptcy. The movie had a running time of 3 1/2 hours and culminated in a stunning chariot race coordinated by veteran stuntman Yakima Canutt. The movie saved MGM from bankruptcy.

After "Ben-Hur," Heston was the reigning figure of big-budget adventure films. They included playing a U.S. Marine during the Boxer Rebellion in "55 Days at Peking" (1963) and an obsessed Union Army cavalry officer in Sam Peckinpah's "Major Dundee" (1965). He was also John the Baptist in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965) and a futuristic police officer in "Soylent Green" (1973), the last becoming an enduring favorite for the closing line Heston yells: "Soylent Green is people!"

As Heston prepared for parts, he did not follow the then-popular Method acting school, in which the actor pulls from his experiences to explain a character's motivations.

"I find the character from the specifics about him -- the way he looks, the clothes he wears, the watch he carries," he told the Saturday Evening Post. "I resonate enormously on these external things."

He added: "If you get tied up with your own psyche, digging into your own belly button, you may learn something about yourself, but I'm not convinced you're going to find significant creative truth about some other character."

Heston liked playing what he called "extraordinary men" -- President Andrew Jackson, Cardinal Richelieu, Michelangelo.

He said he became disenchanted with Hollywood culture in the late 1960s when authority figures were being portrayed in a negative light. He began to speak out against the changing political and social climate, taking a largely conservative view.

One of Heston's closest friends, producer Walter Seltzer, told Los Angeles Magazine that the actor's change of politics probably stemmed from a reunion with his dying father, whom Seltzer called a "hard-core Republican."

Heston, who helped organize the artists' contingent to the 1963 March on Washington, later said the civil rights bills spurred by the march led to a "tangle of entitlements and reverse discrimination."

While at the NRA, he offended many when he spoke of a larger culture he said he had long ceased to understand, highlighting in one 1998 speech the "fringe propaganda of the homosexual coalition, the feminists who preach that it is the divine duty for women to hate men, blacks who raise a militant fist with one hand while they seek preference with the other."

The NAACP protested the remarks, but Heston declined to apologize. He said his larger concern was "political correctness" that caused the further splintering of America.

He elaborated on his views of society in his books, including "In the Arena" (1997) and "To Be a Man: Letters to My Grandson" (2000).

Survivors include his wife and two children, Fraser Heston of Los Angeles and Holly Rochell of New York City; a half-sister; and three grandchildren.

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