In modern America, film and television are powerful shapers of culture. They provide shared experiences; they influence the way people think about the world around them.
They can even help establish powerful cultural traditions. Especially before the age of movie rentals and DVDs, there were a few things you could always count on happening every year: that is, families gathering around the TV to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas or It’s a Wonderful Life or The Wizard of Oz.
But for my money, the greatest TV tradition took place at Easter: sitting down to watch Charlton Heston play Moses in The Ten Commandments and the title role in Ben Hur. The excellent production values and storytelling of these films, and in particular the powerful, dignified acting of Heston, brought the Bible and its characters into homes everywhere, many of which might have had no other experience with or knowledge of Christianity.
So, I am sure that when many heard of Heston’s death, they felt a part of their own lives had passed along as well. He was, as many have written, a cultural icon.
And if you had to pick a cultural icon worthy of the status, you could not do much better than Charlton Heston. If you have been reading the tributes, you have seen why: Married to his wife, Lydia, for 64 years, a beloved father and grandfather, a staunch supporter of civil rights who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and stood nearby as King delivered the immortal “I Have a Dream” speech.
Yet there are those who deride Heston for the causes that he devoted himself to later in his life, such as Second Amendment rights and protecting kids from an increasingly coarse culture. I think these people are missing something. It is not the man who goes easily along with the prevailing winds of the culture who most deserves our respect and admiration. It is the man who stands up for his beliefs, against the popular trends of the day—even when he has something to lose.
If Charlton Heston had not been such a man, he never would have supported civil rights when he did—that was a time when much of Hollywood, and much of America, just did not care. By the same token, if he had not been such a man, he would not have stood up years later in a Time-Warner shareholders’ meeting and read aloud the complete lyrics of rapper Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” CD that Time-Warner had just released.
Later, Heston recalled, “When I read the lyrics to the waiting press corps, one of them said ‘We can’t print that.’ ‘I know,’ I replied, ‘but Time-Warner’s selling it.’ Two months later, Time-Warner terminated Ice-T’s contract.” Heston said, “I’ll never be offered another film by Warner, or get a good review from Time magazine.” But much more important to Heston than any career opportunity, was doing what he knew was right.
That is what made him such a great and rare figure. He was not content just to be celebrated as a cultural icon for playing roles like Moses, Ben-Hur, Michelangelo, and others. He was willing to risk scorn and ridicule to be a countercultural icon as well. And he was as courageous in his life as the characters he portrayed on film. May his example inspire many others to take such a stand, to help shape, heal, and transform our culture.