As Moses, he parted the Red Sea. As Ben-Hur, he grimaced, showing off the teeth above that famous square jawbone, and drove a chariot to an Oscar. As a pilot in "Airport '75," he strapped himself to a wire and was transported to mid-air from one plane to another, just in time to land the plane and walk off into the sunset with the stewardress.
Now, Charlton Heston stars as one of the co-chairs of the White House task force on the arts and the humanities. He takes on his newest role at a tiem when the national endownments for the arts and the humanities are reeling from the shock of 50-percent cuts and supporters of federal funding for the arts and humanities are frustrated and angry with the Reagan administration.
It's an all-star cast -- opera singer Beverly Sills, Arthur Mitchell of the Dance Theatre of Harlm, John Swearingen of Standard Oil, Daniel Boorstin of the Library of Congress And Joseph Coors of Adolph Coors Co. are among the 32 members on the task force. And President Ronald Reagan, former actor-colleague of Heston back in their Screen Actors Guild days, makes a cameo appearnace as himself.
"I said to the president, among other things this morning, that certainly the federal goverment has a vital role in the arts, and he said, 'Absolutely,'" says Heston, who met with Reagan for less than half an hour on Friday to discuss the task force. "He surely has much more important things to talk about," Heston says. "It was the usual mutual congratulations. He said very nice things and how pleased he was. He said, 'I'm sure you're going to do a good job.' I suppose you can't get many fellas who'll do this kind of thing." He chuckles, slouched back in a chair in a borrowed Kennedy Center office. His tie is loosened, his shoulders impressively wide. But it takes the suit jacket to render the full Charlton Heston Look: the handsome craggy face stoap the linebacker torso.
This is a role of the coming-in-to-save-the-day genre, one he's played before, on film and off. Although he would probably not characterize it that dramatically, he has some strong ideas about what the task force can do.
"There is corporate money out there available for the arts," he says, leaning forward. "I know that, because I got some of it for the American Film Institute. I know that if only of the top 500 corporations -- if any one of them -- gave the legally allowable 5 percent to the arts or the humanities, that would take care of the whole shot right ther. I'm not suggesting that's going to happen."
Heston, like Reagan, was once president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), which he mentions as one of his qualifications for his new job.
"I tell you," says Heston, who is 56, "there is a prejudice against actors as frivolous lightweights, which I think is largely unjustified. Obviously, there are idiots who act and there are guys, who aren't idiots, who act. But what has been overlooked in this prejudice -- which, by the way, is really a deep social prejudice against actors as a profession and goes back centuries -- what has been overlooked in the midst of all this is that actors tend to communicate effectively. That's what they do.
"It's a curious thing," he says. "Somehow, television anchor men have come to b perceived as pundits. They're actors, for God's sake. They don't make all that stuff up. They just read it. Any good actor could read the evening news cold better than some of these guys do it after years on the job." He grins triumphantly, the palm of his hand firmly on the table. "Believe me, they could. Take my word."
Heston's curriculum vitae: Six years (1966-72) on the National Council on the Arts, former co-chairman of the American Film Institute ("Once when I was at an AFI Council meeting, I got up to go to the men's room and when I came back I was chairman"), former chairman of the board of Center Theatre Group of Los Angeles, as well as board member (1960-75) and president (1965-71) of SAG. "I suppose [that] gives you some kind of qualifications," he says. "The time I spent on both sides of the fence, begging up on the Hill for money. That's for every goddamn thing you can think of.
I suppose it started with the Screen Actors Guild," he says. "You think. 'God, most guys can't make a living. The tiny bunch that can have to act in whatever they get, and here I get to chose what I do and who I do it with and how I do it.' You've got to pay some of that back or God will punish you." He chuckles. "I suppose it was a Puritian-Socttish angst." The famous voice is gravelly, the speech meticulous. There's still that dramatic tone, almost a snarl to the voice, which has marked him in some minds as the eternal Moses when in fact only two movies out of 55 or so were set in biblical times.
"He's an effective spokesman and the arts happen to be an issue he cares about," says AFI chairman and producer George Stevens Jr. You don't find him speaking for or against gun control or anything else. He picks his issues selectively, whereas some others are signed up for eight or nine causes."
He has another major asset. Says one member of the task force: "There's no sense in having a good task force without a chairman the president would talk to, is there?"
Heston and Ronald Reagan got ot know each other in 1960. "I met him during his last term as president of the Screen Actors Guild," says Heston, "which overlapped with my first term on the board. Although I was new, he appointed me to the committee which negotiated the quite serious strike we had that winter. You get to know someone with a curious kind of focused intensity when you stay up and share a couch . . . and you're drinking cold coffee at four in the morning. Some of those sessions get very rough. He led that strike superbly and handled the negotiations with, I thought, moderation and skill. His effectiveness as what is now [known as] the great communicator did not surprise me because I've seen him do it. He is enormously good at it. I suppose it's now generally conceded that he's the best at that of any president we've had since Roosevelt."
Heston and his wife, Lydia, knew Nancy Reagan before Ronald Reagan did, sas Heston. "She's probably the first professional artist we've had as a first lady," says Heston. "Her specific involvement in the task force is only a couple of weeks old and it's not a formal thing, but the fact that she cares about it is good."
Heston says Nancy Reagan was supportive of adding Nancy Hanks, former chairman of the National Endownment for the Arts, to the task force. "Nancy Hanks had been discussed before," says Heston, "but I think Mrs. Reagan's endorsement was useful, shall we say."
Heston says the task force will function through dialogues -- people talking on the phone, meeting for lunch in one city or another. "If you get more than five people sitting around a table, it gets to be a meeting," says Heston. "And about all you ever conclude from a meeting is that it would be a good idea to have another meeting." Heston expects three or four big task force meetings -- the first takes place June 15 in Washington -- and he also expects to have a hand in writing the task force report. "I care a lot about language," he says.
When the rumors started months ago that he was being considered for chairman of the National Endownment for the Arts, he denied he was considering any full-time government job. Asked if he was interested in a part-time chairmanship, Heston, who is making a movie in Canada now, says, "I don't see how it could become part-time."
Even so, Heston has some ideas about how the arts endownment could function better on a lowered budget, the need for which he readily accepts. "We've got to find some way to spend less money. That's obviously part of an enormous national mandate. It's a funny thing. Everybody says, 'I know we've got to cut, but don't cut me. Cut that fellow behind the tree."
He might start with the Expansion Arts program, designed to reach smaller arts groups. "I said at the time it was created that, while a desirable series of programs, it would be more appropriate under HEW," says Heston. "Do you define the arts as recreation? I think perhaps one of the functions of this task force will be to determine whether the endownments should involve themselves in recreational arts and humanities funding. Because a program of street dancing is perceived to be a good idea doesn't necessarily mean it should be funded by the NEA. Because an undertaking in community history . . . is perceived to be a good idea and a useful thing doesn't necessarily mean it should be funded by the NEH. Especially if they're going to operate on a smaller budget."
(It is a criticism the NEA has heard before, says one NEA official. "We don't make any apoligies for it . . . If a symphony orchestra makes the majority of people feel good, that's called arts. If another arts groups makes the poor feel good, it's called social service.")
Wherever the task force goes, Heston says, it will not take him to public office in the tradition of Ronald Reagan -- whom Heston voted for -- and actor George Murphy (who was a senator from California). At the black-tie Inaugural Gala at the Capital Centre in January, Heston was one of the Hollywood lineup. He read a series of quotes by American writers, including a poem by Thomas Wolfe, while the band played "Battle Hymn of the Republic" in the background.
"I was approached by a coalition of Democrats once about running for the Senate from California," Heston says. "You've got to think about it, and I thought about it -- about five minutes. I mean, I act. I tell you one thing you can be as sure of as anything: There is no way I am considering running for elective office -- for anything."