Actor Charlton Heston died on Saturday at the age of 84. A lordly leading man in such epics as Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, and Planet of the Apes, Heston was equally well-known as a staunch supporter of Second Amendment rights. In this 1998 Assessment—written a week after Heston was named president of the National Rifle Association—David Plotz explained to conservatives why Charlton Heston was not the second coming of Ronald Reagan.
By my reckoning, Charlton Heston has played: a CIA director, two prophets (Moses, twice, and Brigham Young), two saints (Thomas More and John the Baptist), an admiral, two generals (as well as six captains and three majors), a cardinal (Richelieu), two kings (Macbeth and Henry VIII), and three presidents of the United States (Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and Franklin Roosevelt’s voice).
So the National Rifle Association, which elected Heston president this week, can be forgiven for mistaking the actor for a real commander. NRA leaders believe the patriarchal Heston will polish the gun lobby’s lousy public image while galvanizing its red-meat-and-gunpowder members. “Hey, Moses is on our side,” gloats NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre.
At 73, Heston does remain an awesome presence—tall, grandfatherly, astonishingly handsome, his voice as magnificent as ever. (President Heston has already employed that godly bass to great effect. His NRA speech produced a memorable sound bite that’s being played and replayed on newscasts.) Heston’s ascendance seems to be filling some conservatives with what-if regret. Why didn’t he run for office when he was in his prime?
Heston’s fans are falling victim to Celebrity Identification Disorder, the same malady that causes people to write letters to soap opera characters. Heston periodically says, “I am not Moses,” but his admirers don’t quite believe it. He’s been associated with extraordinary men for so long that they assume he must be one.
In fact, Heston embodies a very different, more mundane, but still admirable ethos. The defining quality of his career is competence, not genius. He was never a romantic lead, but he was Hollywood’s superstar during the epic’s brief heyday. Since the late ‘50s, however, he has enjoyed the most workmanlike career of any actor in Hollywood. He has made a prosperous living by playing, with slight variation, the same role for 50 years: the hero with a stick up his rear end.
Heston is the Volvo of Hollywood actors: never brilliant, never awful, always reliable. He has appeared in more than 80 movies, countless TV films, dozens of plays. He is always first on the set. He’s unfailingly polite to co-workers and respectful to directors. He never misses work because of illness. Appropriately modest, he credits his success to his “physical equipment” rather than his talent: his height and good health, as well as that voice, that jaw, and that nose. Heston researches his roles assiduously, memorizing Old Testament passages to play Moses and reading all Michelangelo’s letters to play him.
Unlike many actors of his generation, Heston has cheerfully adjusted to senior citizenship. He accepts lesser parts in bad movies (Call of the Wild) and worse television (The Colbys, a short-lived, dreadful Dynasty spinoff). He has become a hired-gun narrator, the guy you buy when you need God’s voice. Heston’s signature characters (Moses, Ben-Hur, El Cid) always took themselves seriously, but Heston doesn’t. He has played self-mocking parts in Wayne’s World 2 and Bud Light ads. He is a pro, a hack, the guy whose highest value is that he gets the job done.
Off-screen, too, Heston leads an unremarkable life. He has been married for 54 years and is extremely close to his two children. He lives quietly on a (well-armed) Los Angeles estate, eschewing parties for history books and his journal (author of three memoirs, he is an excellent, funny writer).
And his activism is a steady hobby rather than an obsession. He’s an enthusiast, but also a dilettante. In the early ‘60s, he was a staunch civil rights advocate. In the early ‘80s, he advised Ronald Reagan on National Endowment for the Arts funding. He has condemned the nuclear freeze movement, obscene rap music, and overpopulation. In every case Heston has been effective without being monomaniacal. (His rhetoric, admittedly, is not always restrained. He denounces political correctness with froth-at-the-mouth language that would be hilarious if it weren’t so nasty. Click here for a couple of examples.)
Heston has even had moderate instincts about gun rights. Until recently, he hasn’t spent much time pushing the Second Amendment. After Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, he endorsed strong gun control legislation, and as recently as last year he declared that AK-47s are “inappropriate for private use.” (Heston’s “softness” on gun rights was an issue in his NRA election, but he has quieted critics by backing off his earlier statements and hewing to the NRA’s official line. He recently said that a Washington state initiative to require trigger locks was “written by Satan.”)
All this is to say: Those who liken him to Reagan misunderstand Heston. It is an easy comparison. Both are Democrats who converted to conservative Republicanism. Both are actors who involved themselves in politics. Both served as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Both are marvelous speakers.
But here is the critical point about Heston: He never grabbed the ring. He declined invitations from Democrats and Republicans to run for the Senate in California and resisted efforts to draft him into the 1988 presidential race. He was an actor, is an actor, and will always be an actor. His life is comfortable, and he sees no reason to change it.
It’s true that Heston the activist has accomplished more than most private citizens ever hope to. But he has never done what his characters would have. The extraordinary man, the man who believes he can change the world, hungers for the power to do it and pursues that power relentlessly. Reagan had that hunger and changed the world. Heston has all the “physical equipment”—brain, voice, good looks—but not the hunger.
That’s why the NRA presidency is the perfect job for him. It’s a ceremonial position, a grand title with few responsibilities attached. He will not actually run the NRA. His job is to give speeches, to be a symbol, to act presidential. And there’s no one who acts presidential better than Charlton Heston.