At 74, the hawklike and patrician features of Charlton Heston still identify the actor who has graced Hollywood playing presidents, Ben Hur, Moses, an aging New Orleans Saints quarterback and a tramp cowboy of great if weathered nobility. On the East Coast, his presence has become a well-respected staple of the Washington scene as well.
A recent hip replacement slowed him for a moment, but he was back on the tennis court in record time, playing gentlemanly but indubitably competitive sets with his pals on weekends.
In a lifetime of citations, recognition and tributes, Heston’s Kennedy Center honor ranks with the Jean Hersholt Award from the Motion Picture Academy for his civic activities (which have included six terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild and the first chairmanship of the American Film Institute).
The Kennedy Center honor recognizes, of course, Heston’s half-century career as an actor on stage, television and the screen, in something like 70 films from “Dark City” through “The Agony and the Ecstasy” as Michelangelo and all the other characterizations from Henry VIII and Cardinal Richelieu to Buffalo Bill Cody. But the honor also recognizes his work as an ambassador and worker in the cause of all the arts.
The just-elected President Ronald Reagan asked Heston in 1981 to head a task force to evaluate the National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities and the whole question and public and private support for the arts.
“The arts establishment was sure the task force had been created to ax both the Endowments,” Heston says, “which is not what happened. After discussing and including in our report the various shortcomings of both organizations, we said there was still an arguable case for federal support, which is about where it is now.”
But Heston is perhaps even more convinced now about the limits of government support than he was then.
“The number of grants that have stirred controversy are only 40 to 50. But Edward Rothstein said in a piece in the New York Times a few Sundays ago that the arts are neither a social program or a democratic undertaking, and I find that very plausible.
“Michelangelo gets to paint the Sistine ceiling, the other guys don’t. You can’t train someone to be Michelangelo or Mozart or Shakespeare. You can’t train someone to be Michael Jordan, either.”
Organizations are different, Heston admits. “The Met needs the money, and supporting an organization like Metropolitan Opera or a museum is a faintly different thing. And the days are gone when J.P. Morgan would write a check, as he did, to cover the Met’s annual deficit. A delegation would arrive, tell him the figure and he would write a check and say, ‘Nice to have seen you again. Would you care for some sherry?’ Still, it’s hard to justify a social program for these things.”
Before the task force, Heston had been appointed to the second generation of the National Council on the Arts, an advisory body then chaired by Roger Stevens, and he has vivid memories of sitting in on the grants discussions.
“One morning Roger said, ‘This poem has been submitted for a $10,000 grant.’ It was entitled ‘Liiiggghhhttt,’ and that’s all there was, one assembly of letters that could be pronounced ‘Light.’ I said it was ridiculous; it wasn’t a poem, wasn’t even a word. And besides the guy doesn’t need the money; he’s already written it. Someone said, ‘It’s cutting edge, free-form verse.’ Helen Hayes was on the board then, and she went into a tirade, and we didn’t approve it.”
These days, Heston says, his main function is to open doors to the private sector on behalf, for example, of Jean Firstenberg and the AFI. “I’m a terrible fundraiser, but I can get into people’s offices. I say, ‘Jean, you make the pitch.’ I just say how proud I am to be associated with the AFI, yup, yup and so on.”
Congressional offices are particularly easy to get into, Heston says, and he has learned to allow time for the congressman to summon a photographer so Heston can pose with every member of the staff. “Many a congressman or senator has said, ‘I won’t have any trouble with the staff for the next two weeks.’ ”
Heston has been asked three times to run for office himself, but he has refused, on the grounds that it would necessarily mean an end to his career as an actor. “And acting is what I do,” he says.
His long involvement with the National Rifle Association, now as a vice-president and principal spokesman, does not sit well with many of his Hollywood friends (who do not discuss politics with him, unless, of course, they happen to agree). But, as on all other issues that come before him, Heston has a well-argued if controversial position. He likes to point out that he participated in civil rights marches and introduced Martin Luther King Jr. to Hollywood’s union leaders, which led to a lowering of the barriers to membership.
The male icons the movies have generated, from Jimmy Cagney to Clark Gable to Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, Jack Lemmon and others – and Charlton Heston – comprise a kind of mosaic of the American man, his range and variety somehow absorbed into one internationally admired image.
The actor continues to act, most recently a cameo in Kenneth Branagh’s epic-sized “Hamlet” and a fine outing as a villain in “Alaska,” which was directed by his son Fraser. Heston and his wife Lydia also toured England earlier this year, starring in A.R. Gurney’s delightful two-character reading, “Love Letters.”
Heston’s longtime friend, Walter Seltzer, the producer of seven of his films, says, “He’s the total professional. He’s always on time, knows his lines and [laughing] he doesn’t bump into the furniture. And some of his best work, ‘Soylent Green,’ for example, has begun with material he found himself.”
Of the Kennedy Center honor, Heston says, “It’ll be the first time I’ve been kissed by a president. He does tend to hug. But I’ve also said that almost all honors are subjectively chosen, by committees of maybe 50 or 60. The only honor you can be sure you really won and deserve is if you won the 50-yard dash in the second grade. You really beat the other guys.