Heston, Charlton (1924—)

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Heston, Charlton (1924—)

"'Hard' is what I do best," Charlton Heston once told a photographer. "I don't do 'nice."' Strange words, perhaps, coming from an actor who has specialized in playing symbols of rectitude such as Moses, Judah Ben-Hur, and even Jehovah Himself. Yet this steely-eyed, jut-jawed performer has excelled at infusing his heroic portrayals with an almost fearsome iconic power. He has brought a comparable flintiness to his civic life as a firearms activist and itinerant right-wing gadfly.

A speech and drama graduate of Northwestern University, Heston was a stolid if unspectacular presence in Westerns and war pictures of the 1950s. He made his big (Red Sea) splash playing Moses in the 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. That Biblical classic started him on a long string of historical parts, including the title roles in Ben-Hur (1959), for which he earned a Best Actor Oscar, and El Cid (1961). He also played a muscular Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965).

In 1968, Heston made Planet of the Apes, a film Entertainment Weekly called "the Citizen Kane of guilty pleasures." As George Taylor, an astronaut stranded on a world ruled by simians, Heston chews the scenery with the voracity of a starving dog attacking a T-bone steak. Glowering, grimacing, and barking at his ape captors through clenched teeth, Heston is the apotheosis of Nixonian macho. "Damn you! God damn you all to hell!" he rails into the empty sky at the film's climax—and we feel like lining up obediently to face the brimstone.

Planet of the Apes proved a career turning point for Heston—the precise moment he made the transformation from respected leading man to endearing camp figure. He solidified that newfound status with two early 1970s science-fiction films, The Omega Man in 1971 and Soylent Green two years later. Both pictures traded on his macho man persona, affording him copious amounts of screen time with his shirt off and an automatic weapon in his hand. The reactionary subtext was unmistakable. In the first film, he fights off an army of hippie zombies; in the second he vainly tries to save the planet from government-sponsored euthanasia (those damned liberals!). In both movies he ends up prostrate ("Soylent Green is PEE-pullll!!!"), sacrificing his own life for humanity, in a crucifixion pose. Perhaps Heston wished to end his career by playing every possible permutation of the godhead.

There were other prominent roles for Heston in the 1970s. He did a string of disaster movies, most notably Earthquake (1974), but turned down the lead in Jaws when he had tired of them. After growing too old to carry a picture by himself, he settled comfortably into character actor status. He was used, effectively, by Kenneth Branagh as the Player King in the British auteur's 1997 production of Hamlet.

For the most part, however, Heston concentrated on political endeavors. He spoke out often and endlessly on right-wing causes, from family values to "white pride." "I'm pissed off when Indians say they're Native Americans," he railed to Time in 1998. " I'm a Native American, for Chrissakes!" Especially dear to Heston's heart was the right to gun ownership. In 1997, "Moses," as his critics invariably derided him, was elected first vice president of the National Rifle Association (NRA). The next year the actor ascended to the presidency itself, ousting a candidate who was deemed "too conservative" by the NRA rank and file. While liberals may have shuddered at the thought of Charlton Heston being considered a moderate alternative, the actor continued to provide them with red meat for their fundraising letters. In speeches, he publicly called for the return of a society where one could "love without being kinky … be white without feeling guilty" and other back-to-the-future nostrums.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Heston, Charlton. In the Arena. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Mulrine, Anna. "Moses Fights for Gun Rights." U.S. News & World Report. May 19, 1997.

Schilling, Mary-Kaye. "Charlton Heston: Treasured Chest." Entertainment Weekly. September 5, 1997.