On October 4, 1924, Charlton Heston was born in Evanston, Illinois – he was originally christened John Charles Carter. Charlton was his mother’s maiden name; Heston was his soon-to-be stepfather’s last name (it became his surname when he was 11 years old). He didn’t adopt his stage name until his first film, Peer Gynt (a 16mm silent film he starred in at age 16 while still in high school – it was directed by future Hollywood director David Bradley).
Heston grew up in Northern Michigan, spending time wandering and hunting in the back woods near his family home. He didn’t wait to be drafted for service in WWII; he enlisted in 1944 in the Army Air Corps, the same branch of the service my great-grandfather was drafted for. That same year he married Lydia Marie Clarke. After the war, they worked as low-wage models for art students in Manhattan; it was then that Heston got back into acting, landing a lead role in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra on Broadway. He also landed several TV shows, including Studio One. He happened upon film by accident – a studio executive saw Heston on the set of a TV enactment of Wuthering Heights and offered him a contract. Lydia didn’t want him to do it, but he reportedly told her, “just one film – just to see what it’s like.”
Heston took off in film in a way he likely never dreamed. After a few lower-key crime dramas, Heston was cast by Cecil B. DeMille for the lead roles in Greatest Show on Earth and The Ten Commandments. Heston starred in Touch of Evil before landing a role that all but defined him: Ben-Hur. Hollywood legends Marlon Brando and Rock Hudson turned the role down before it was ever offered to Heston. He won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (the movie garnered eleven statues total). He also starred in Secret of the Incas, The Big Country, El Cid, 55 Days at Peking, Julius Caesar, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Khartoum, Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, Earthquake!, Midway, and Grey Lady Down (among many others). He was one of the most prolific actors of his time and served as the president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1965 – 1971.
Today’s generation remembers him most for his political activism…in particular his stint as the president of the National Rifle Association. Michael Moore openly disrespected him in the crockumentary Bowling for Columbine, a political screed in which Moore pinned gun violence on gun-rights advocates like Heston. George Clooney (who is, quite possibly, one of the worst actors I have ever seen – even beating Keanu Reeves, in my opinion) outrageously quipped during a speech at an event for the National Board of Review that “Charlton Heston announced again today that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s” (he later excused himself by saying that Heston deserved the off-color crack merely for his involvement with the NRA). Most of today’s young’uns don’t know about Heston’s early activism.
He campaigned for future president John F. Kennedy. He picketed segregated restaurants and theaters and, along with a handful of other actors – including Sidney Poitier – marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963. He protested for civil rights long before most other actors got into it. He also supported the Gun Control Act of 1968, the law that bars interstate gun transfers among all but those who are federally licensed as firearms dealers (the same law banned all people convicted to one year or more by the feds and two years or more by any state to imprisonment for any crime, fugitives, drug addicts, illegal aliens, anyone with a court protective order against them, any person found legally mentally unstable, anyone dishonorably discharged from the US military, anybody who has renounced their US citizenship or who has committed any domestic violence crime from possessing any firearm and created the FFL system for licensing gun dealers). Heston opposed the Vietnam war and voted for Richard Nixon with the hopes that the Republicans would find a way to end the war.
Heston went on to criticize the press for their coverage of the 1991 Gulf War for lowering morale among Americans during wartime. He lambasted what he saw as racism against whites and discrimination against heterosexuals in Hollywood, education and the media, saying, “why is ‘Hispanic Pride’ or ‘Black Pride’ a good thing, while ‘White Pride’ conjures shaven heads and white hoods? Why was the Million Man March on Washington celebrated by many as progress, while the Promise Keepers March on Washington was greeted with suspicion and ridicule? I’ll tell you why, Cultural warfare!”
While he is most often remembered for declaring, “from my cold, dead hands,” most don’t know and don’t care about all the other causes that Charlton Heston stood for. Considering the wealth of good causes that he fought hard for long before I was ever born, I think that is horribly sad.
When I was in my early twenties my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I watched her turn quickly – shockingly so – almost completely infirm thanks to that dreadful disease. It broke my heart that weekend in 2004, when my family gathered to say goodbye and she passed away after days of fluid buildup in her lungs, listening to the death rattle that so many have experienced in a loved one. Charlton Heston’s family has never spoken publicly about the days and weeks before his death, but having witnessed such a death, I can understand why.
Heston is still one of my greatest heroes. Not because of his fame…rather, I admire him because his fame didn’t get the best of him. Long before Hollywood found its place in political activism, Heston stood up for the issues he believed in and didn’t give a damn what anybody thought of him for it. He was able to do so with respect and dignity, without ever insulting those who disparaged him – even Michael Moore and George Clooney. Against the advice of all of those closest to him, he stood up to Time/Warner and rapper Ice-T by calling out the lyrics of Ice-T’s album “Body Count” as the horror that they were and are. He did so knowing full well that he would be ridiculed and loathed, but he felt the knew needed to be told. The days of such classy actors are, I fear, long over.
Yesterday Charlton Heston would have been 87 years old yesterday. The title of this post were his words during a speech to the Harvard graduates of 1999. He will always have my profound respect and gratitude.