Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Guns and Moses


Last December, Bob Dylan literally stopped the music on his "Theme Time Radio Hour" show to honor Charlton Heston.

Following the soulful tune “Eve’s Ten Commandments,” Dylan mentioned Heston’s iconic role as Moses in the well-known biblical epic and added, “Charlton gets a bad rap for his strong conservative beliefs and involvement with the NRA, but truth to tell, he was a strong advocate for civil rights, many years before it became fashionable….”

Dylan ticked off Heston’s accolades, including the Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award, and then added, admiringly, “Never mind the fact that he’s in a couple of our favorite movies, including ‘Touch of Evil,’ ‘The Big Country,’ ‘Planet of the Apes’ and of course ‘Soylent Green.’”

It could stand as a fitting eulogy for Heston, who died Saturday at the age of 84, except for one thing: He didn’t seem to mind that “bad rap” he got in liberal Hollywood for his political beliefs. Indeed, he embraced his political conservatism unlike any other actor in the business.

Using his image and celebrity to champion the Second Amendment and gun-rights legislation for more than two decades, Heston’s advocacy of a single political issue is matched by few modern actors. Certainly George Clooney, Michael J. Fox and Leonardo DiCaprio have all been closely identified with such issues as Darfur, stem cell research and environmentalism — but none is so contentious as that of gun control.

And Heston has never shied away from controversy. In 1992, he condemned the infamous Ice-T rap song “Cop Killer,” then released by a Time Warner-distributed music label. Biting the hand that had fed him, Heston showed up at a Time Warner shareholders’ meeting at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel covered by this reporter. He lashed out against the giant corporation whose studio had cast him in so many movies.

He harshly admonished its top executives for releasing the song, then simply, eloquently read the lyrics. Few there had ever heard the actual words before, and as Heston recited the homicidal, anti-police rant inspired by the Rodney King assault, the room filled with his booming baritone. When he finished, the place was so stunned you could hear a pin drop.

More recently, Heston’s presidency of the National Rifle Association of America from 1998 to 2003 defined him for a new generation. He made history at the first NRA convention of the new millennium by holding a handmade Brooks flintlock musket above his head and declaring that the then-presidential Democratic candidate Al Gore would have to pry his Second Amendment rights “from my cold, dead hands.”

Vilified by the left, he was condemned by Michael Moore in the Oscar-winning 2002 documentary “Bowling for Columbine,” with Moore haranguing him for supporting a pro-gun rally in Denver immediately following the Columbine High School massacre.

In a now-famous scene from the film, Heston starts to answer Moore’s questions but then just walks away in the middle of the interview, leaving the filmmaker alone at his L.A. home. On Sunday, Moore’s website featured a black-bordered photo of Heston, along with a caption noting the Heston family requested donations to the Motion Picture and Television Fund in lieu of flowers.

“Heston understood the power of image and celebrity to draw attention to issues” long before others did, says Howard Bragman of the Hollywood public relations firm Fifteen Minutes. “He played larger than life characters including Ben Hur and Moses, and realized the power that went along with those images.”

Even though his most famous characters lived in ancient times, “they stood for leadership and standing strong against people who didn’t agree with them,” says Bragman, adding that Heston’s “authenticity” gave him credibility to speak out for those issues he deemed important.

Of course, Ben Hur was a slave, and Heston’s first efforts in political activism came about in the early 1960s, when he protested segregationist policies. In May 1961, Heston walked a picket line in front of a whites-only restaurant in Oklahoma City, part of a long campaign involving thousands of demonstrators who fought against downtown businesses discriminating against black patrons. In his 1995 autobiography, “In the Arena,” he explained how civil rights “was also part of my expanded persona, riding the tiger.”

In later years, he would recall his early activism and tie it directly into his stance on gun owners’ rights, explaining that both struggles were bound into his support for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

“Jesse Jackson and Louie Farrakhan know I fought in their cultural war,” Heston told the Free Congress Foundation’s 20th anniversary gala in 1997. “I was one of the first white soldiers in the civil rights movement in 1961, long before it was fashionable in Hollywood — believe me — or in Washington for that matter. In 1963 I marched on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King to uphold the Bill of Rights. I'm very proud of that. As [then-] vice president of the NRA I am doing the same thing.”

Heston would often talk about how he hunted as a child “only to put food on the table” during the Depression, and later spoke fondly of his Army Colt .45 pistol he brought back from duty as a bomber gunner during WWII, confessing that he always slept with the .45 beside his bed.

After opposing the Vietnam War and supporting liberal measures such as LBJ’s Gun Control Act of 1968 (“I was young and foolish,” he told Time Magazine), he voted for Richard Nixon in 1972. During the 1980s as the Reagan Revolution took hold, Heston became more vocal in the pro-gun movement and joined the conservative wing of the Republican Party, opposing affirmative action, decrying political correctness and speaking out against abortion.

But to many Americans, Heston’s legacy will rest on two touchstones: his iconic performance as Moses in “The Ten Commandments” and his emphatic support for the National Rifle Association.

He even got into a war of words with George Clooney back in 2003, when Clooney lamely joked that Heston’s ultra-conservative stance came from Alzheimer’s. Asked if he went too far with his remarks, Clooney said he didn’t care and that, because Heston was the head of the NRA, he deserved “whatever anyone says about him.”

But, indeed, Heston did suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and Clooney later wrote him a letter of apology.

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