By Tommy Hough
It's easy to dismiss Charlton Heston as the rifle-waving, right-wing lunatic he became in his later years, just as it's easy to dismiss Heston's acting as scene-chewing and posing – although in his prime no one filled up space on a screen the way Heston could.
Whether playing Moses for Cecil B. DeMille, riding a chariot and challenging Roman tyranny in Ben-Hur, or mowing down mutants with a grease gun while wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses, colorful ascot and lanky grin in Omega Man, Heston knew exactly how to position himself on camera, grit his teeth, and use his voice to lend overblown grandeur to even the silliest dialogue.
Similarly, just as his films ran the gamut from epic myth-making to check-cashing, there was more to the variety of causes Charlton Heston stood for in his 83 years than just his turn towards ugly right-wing politics in the sunset of his life. He mustered a wellspring of courage and made his name as a Hollywood maverick by boldly marching with Dr. Martin Luther King during the March on Washington in August 1963, at a time when few in Hollywood or even American life dared to "rock the boat" in active support of civil rights.
A few years later, Heston spoke out against the Vietnam War and in favor of gun control after the murder of Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968. As president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1980 he marched in support of his fellow actors during a lengthy work stoppage. Heston even parodied himself by reading a 12-year-old letter he'd written NBC regarding the content of Saturday Night Live while a guest on the show's 15th anniversary special in 1989, and in a series of brilliant Bud Light radio ads in the mid-1990s utilized his overblown style to brilliant, hilarious effect.
Sadly, the man's progressive activism came to a sea change end with the onset of the Reagan era, first glimpsed when he emerged as the spokesman for the Reed Irvine-financed "watchdog" group Accuracy In Media, which was the first modern shot across the bow by a defined conservative organization calling news they didn't like – and didn't want reported – as nebulous "liberal bias," thereby setting the stage for the outright fiction of Fox News.
The same can be said for Heston's activism and eventual leadership of the NRA. Most Americans under 35 will only ever remember Charlton Heston for his role engaging NRA members as the organization went down the rabbit hole of reckless irresponsibility. Holding a vintage rifle over his head at the NRA convention in Denver in April 1999, days after the mass killing at nearby Columbine High School, Heston reprised the tired NRA mantra that his firearm wouldn't be taken away except "out of my cold, dead hands." It's a terrible legacy.
Heston's embrace of the NRA in light of the slaughter at Columbine may speak volumes about what he believed to be his maverick style, but it's a tragic contrast to his televised appeal for calm in support of President Johnson's 1968 Gun Control Act, alongside Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck 30 years earlier. How the man went from one extreme to another remains a mystery except to his family and those closest to him. But despite his positions and choice of company in the 1980s and beyond, one must credit Heston for the compassionate, wise choices of activism earlier in his life and career, when he was free of the Alzheimer's which ended the man's life this weekend.
Granted, I'm a fan of his films, from his turn in what could have been the calamitous role of a small-town Mexican cop in Orson Welles' A Touch of Evil (1958), to the chariot-riding hero of Ben-Hur (1959), to the Captain Ahab turned renegade Civil War officer in Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee (1965) to the scenery-chewing, and frequently mute, captive astronaut in Planet of the Apes (1968).
Heston later played a gun-toting plague survivor who engaged in one of Hollywood's first onscreen interracial sexual encounters in Omega Man (1971), and a New York City cop vaguely aware of the joy of trees, flowers, clean air and fresh food (the environment was another one of Heston's passions before his political sea change) in the futuristic, if silly, Soylent Green (1973). After that came Earthquake (1974), and the check-cashing began in earnest.
While I prefer to remember Charlton Heston as a champion of civil rights, risking his box office appeal and career by appearing with Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and Marlon Brando at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. in August of 1963, I also like to remember him as the guy who saved Sam Peckinpah's career before threatening to kill him while on location filming Major Dundee in Durango, Mexico, in 1964.
The cinematically brilliant Peckinpah was already at a point in his life where his demons, paranoia, and abundant drinking and drug use on and off the set was rampant. Stories about Peckinpah's inebriated abuse of Major Dundee cast and crew in between takes is legendary. As work fell behind schedule, Hollywood sent executives to Durango to get the unstable Peckinpah back on track. When the mercurial director again fell behind schedule, deviated from the script to create his own scenes, and ran maniacally over budget, the Hollywood suits threatened to fire him, no matter how loyally the cast and crew stood by their troubled leader.
When Heston heard about Peckinpah's possible removal, he brought his star power to bear and stepped in. Charlton Heston had been one of Sam Peckinpah's most vocal supporters in the pre-production for Major Dundee, and after seeing Peckinpah's brilliant 1962 western Ride the High Country utilized his Hollywood clout to ensure Peckinpah landed the job of directing Dundee.
So when Heston learned Peckinpah was going to be fired, ostensibly for going over budget, he declared he'd quit if Peckinpah were fired, and offered his salary to cover cost overruns provided the production of Major Dundee continue with Peckinpah at the helm. According to actor L.Q. Jones the studio bosses accepted, to Heston's surprise, thereby calling his bluff.
Heston stayed true to his pledge and forfeited a significant portion of his salary to keep Peckinpah on board, and when the director was too loaded to work, Heston stepped in and directed a number of key scenes in Major Dundee himself. Legend has it during one particularly ugly moment when Peckinpah was berating the cast and crew, a fed-up Heston rode up to the director while mounted on his horse, drew his cavalry sword to Peckinpah's belly and threatened to kill him if he didn't start treating the cast and crew better.
They don't make movies, movie stars or movie directors like that anymore. You don't have the lead actor being the responsible one, going so far as to threaten to kill the director if he didn't quit behaving like a maniac. And can you imagine any actor or actress today – or anyone – putting their financial worth and reputation so far on the line as to forfeit their salary to keep a director on board? That's passion for filmmaking.
Perhaps Heston understood, as many film scholars and fans agree, that artistry often lies behind the mania of creativity. While I'm sure those involved would've preferred a less unpleasant shoot and work environment for Major Dundee, Peckinpah's stable of actors and crew came back to work with him again and again. And while Heston himself chose never to work with Peckinpah again, I give him credit for recognizing early on the cinema Peckinpah was capable of creating.
So along with talking down a wildly drugged Sam Peckinpah, I'll choose to remember Heston as a brave Hollywood icon at the March on Washington and curiously watching the ultimate counterculture movie Woodstock (!) in a deserted, post-plague Los Angeles in Omega Man. And I applaud Heston's rejection of Senator McCarthy's communist witch hunts in the 1950s, and his overt support for the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
But indeed, his later work for the NRA, decision to embrace gun worship in Denver only days after Columbine, and appearing with racist Gordon Lee Baum at the 1986 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) were terrible moral positions that cannot be excused.
Tommy Hough is a former San Diego broadcast personality, wilderness and parks advocate, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He was the endorsed Democratic candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in 2018.