Charlton Heston, who died on Saturday at age 84, was perhaps Hollywood’s most outspoken and visible conservative during the 1980s and 90s even as the industry tilted left.
Often appearing as a draw for Republican candidates at fund-raisers and on the stump, Heston also was a champion of gun rights, and served as president of the National Rifle Association from 1998 to 2003, even as one of his best friends, Gregory Peck, campaigned for gun control. In 2000, he famously held a rifle above his head at an NRA convention and said that his second Amendment rights couldn’t be taken from my “cold, dead hands.”
Amazing as it sounds, given that he has become so associated with conservative causes, Heston was one of Hollywood’s prominent liberals during the 1950s and 60s, having campaigned for John F. Kennedy, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington in 1963, leading the arts contingent in Hollywood that was seeking to end racial discrimination in the studios and unions. Heston said years later than he marched with King “long before it was fashionable” and risked his career in doing so.
According to the New York Times, he switched his party affiliation to
Republican after the Democratic-controlled Senate turned down President Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987.
He was a good friend to Reagan, a fellow former Screen Actors Guild president and former Democrat, and campaigned for him during the 80s, even as Hollywood’s political establishment began to be replaced with a new generation of more liberal figures. Heston found himself on the opposite side of issues such as abortion and affirmative action, but he often complained that he was misunderstood within the entertainment community.
“Political correctness is just tyranny with manners,” Heston said in a 2000 speech at Brandeis University, where he lamented a “cultural cancer that is eating away at our society.”
“Politicians, the media, even the entertainment industry is keenly aware that heated controversy wins votes, snares ratings and keeps the box office humming. They are experts at dangling the bait, and Americans are eager to rise to it. Our culture has replaced the bloody arena fights of ancient Rome with stage fights on TV with Sally, Ricki, Jerry, Jenny and Rosie. Fear of ideas creates more divisions. As a result, we are becoming increasingly fragmented as a people. Our one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all now seems more like the fractured streets of Beirut, echoing with anger.”
Even though he could be critical of the news media, he was often accessible and quotable, earning attention because of his acting pedigree and experience in political causes.
In the early 1990s, he was so appalled at Ice-T’s CD “Cop Killer” that he appeared at Time Warner’s shareholders’ meeting and read the offensive lyrics.
“I’ll never be offered another film by Warners, or get a good review from Time magazine,” he said later. “But disobedience means you must be willing to act, not just talk.”
He was critical of then President Clinton when he assumed the leadership of the NRA. According to the Times, he told those gathered at the NRA convention in 1996, “Mr. Clinton, sir, America didn’t trust you with our health care system. America didn’t trust you with gays in the military. America doesn’t trust you with our 21-year-old daughters, and we sure, Lord, don’t trust you with our guns.”
Heston bristled at critics who charged that some of his comments were homophobic or even racist. Gore Vidal said that he added a gay subtext in writing the screenplay to “Ben-Hur,” but Heston denied such a claim.
Heston said in the 2000 speech, “I recently told an audience that I felt that white pride is just as valid as black pride or red pride or whatever color pride you prefer. For those words, I was called a racist.
“I’ve worked with brilliantly talented homosexuals all my life. But when I told another audience that gay rights should be given no greater consideration than your rights or my rights, I was called a homophobe.
“I served in World War II, and if you saw “Saving Private Ryan” you have some insight into what a savage conflict that was. But when I told an audience that I thought law-abiding gun owners were being singled out for cultural stereotyping much like Jews were under the Axis powers, I was branded an anti-Semite.”
One of his final screen appearances was in “Bowling for Columbine,” Michael Moore’s scathing indictment of the NRA and the gun industry. Heston granted the filmmaker an interview, but found himself flustered by Moore’s questions, centering on an NRA meeting that was staged in Denver in the wake of the 1999 Columbine massacre. Even some of those who agreed with Moore’s positions couldn’t help but feel sympathy for Heston, who around that time was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
As a former president of the SAG (he served from 1966 to 1971), Heston at times had a contentious relationship with guild leadership in the 1990s, but he still supported the commercials strike in 2000 as well as other union causes.
More on Heston’s career here.
Michael Moore’s tribute, in which he requests that donations be sent to the Motion Picture & Television Fund, here.