Charlton Heston, R.I.P.

Posted: Apr 10, 2008 12:01 AM
Charlton Heston, R.I.P.

Charlton Heston, who died on April 5 at 84, had converted from Hollywood liberalism to staunch conservatism in his middle years. Apparently having seen or heard some statement of mine that he agreed with, he asked his friend Bill Buckley to introduce us, and Bill readily agreed. Thus began my own friendship with this splendid man. We would meet over lunch when he was in New York, or (less frequently) in Los Angeles when I moved to San Francisco in 1989. I valued his friendship immensely.

Actors come in many varieties, not all of them appealing. Under the guidance of a skilled director, a stupid actor can chalk up an imposing record without being able to boast a high school diploma. Some are monsters of egotism, others voracious wolves.

But, equally, some are thoroughly appealing human beings, and Chuck Heston (as his friends knew him) was one of these. Quietly intelligent, he was also thoroughly modest. A Midwesterner by birth, and a graduate of Northwestern, he had a brilliant record as an actor, Winning an Oscar for his performance in "Ben-Hur," he scored other successes in such films as "The Ten Commandments," "El Cid" and "Planet of the Apes," to name only three of dozens. But his achievements as an actor were almost overshadowed by his other accomplishments. He was president of the Screen Actors' Guild, chairman of the American Film Institute, and president of the National Rifle Association. In 2003 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

It was from Chuck Heston that I learned the dimensions of a true "celebrity." Over lunch with Bill Buckley, one could usually count on one or two people from nearby tables requesting his autograph. Over lunch with Heston, even at a restaurant well acquainted with famous customers, practically all of the waiters, plus the headwaiter and the chef, would sheepishly ask for his signature (usually "for my sister"). And they would always receive it -- on one of an inexhaustible supply of photographs that he kept in his breast pocket. "Look out," I once warned him, "you'll run out of photographs!" "No, I won't, Bill!" he replied, smiling. And he never did.

Chuck also taught me a lot about actors. He had a deep respect for his profession, and had studied it carefully. He told me that most actors are shy, and like to "hide in their roles." "When you see them on screen or onstage," he explained, "they feel that you are not looking at them but at the character they are playing."

I was one of many who thought that Heston would make a magnificent U.S. senator and were sure that he would be elected overwhelmingly. So I urged him to consider running.

"Well," he replied, "my family is divided on the question. My son wants me to run, and my wife doesn't. But do you realize, Bill" -- and now his eyes were very serious -- "if I were elected to the Senate, I could never play Macbeth again?" At that, I stopped urging him to run. If the acting profession meant as much to him as it clearly did, I didn't want to have even a small part in dissuading him from it.

Several years ago, Heston detected the early signs of Alzheimer's disease. He met the challenge with quiet courage. If it came, so be it. If it didn't (and the signs were unclear), he would go on as long as the Lord allowed. In the last letter he was ever able to write me, he typically quoted Shakespeare: "All may be well."

But all was not well. And now he has died, with the lovely Lydia, his wife of 64 years, at his side. He loved his family, his profession and his country. And he is mourned by the many, many people who loved him.