He is most remembered for the many roles he portrayed on stage and film, but Charlton Heston’s most famous words came from a speech in 2000, where he told Al Gore he could take his guns “from my cold, dead hands.”
Having lived in a time before the 24-hour news cycle, there are many details of Heston’s life that many would be absolutely shocked to discover.
The man led God’s people out of Egypt as “Moses” in the 1956 film The Ten Commandments, and he walked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the March on Washington in 1963. Very few can attest to both feats in the same lifetime, but this is just scratching the surface as to who Charlton Heston was.
While it seems today that everyone’s lives are available for inspection, Heston lived in a time where privacy meant something, and political correctness wasn’t even a concern. Heston represents a time when Americans acted on injustice, tried to do the right thing, and didn’t expect the government to take care of them.
Today’s youth might not have any idea who he was, but Charlton Heston may be the most politically influential man Hollywood has ever seen (aside from Reagan). While his abilities on-screen were matched by few, it was his off-screen contributions to society that are still being felt today.
Born Charlton John Carter on October 4, 1923 in Illinois, the young thespian claims to have always been eccentric. Soon after his birth, the family packed up and moved to a small town in Michigan, until his parents divorced. When he was 10-years-old, his mother remarried, and the family moved to Chicago. There, Heston claims to have had a tough time making friends because he was so different from the other kids.
“All kids play pretend games, but I did it more than most. Even when we moved to Chicago, I was more or less a loner. We lived in a North Shore suburb, where I was a skinny hick from the woods, and all the other kids seemed to be rich and know about girls.”
After his parents divorced, Charlton changed his last name from Carter, to his stepfather’s last name: Heston. This was the last name he used for his first movie, a 1941 amateur film adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.
Heston would recount numerous times where, as a child, he would go into the forest and act out his favorite characters from stories he would read. This “pretending” led Heston to pursue theatre, and he would eventually earn a drama scholarship from Northwestern University.
Then Pearl Harbor happened, and the United States began sending all of its boys to war, Heston being no exception. In 1944, Heston joined the United States Air Force, and for two years served as a radio operator, and aerial gunner on-board a B-25 Mitchell bomber.
That same year Heston would marry fellow Northwest University student Lydia Marie Clarke, and would enlist in the military where he would go on to narrate highly classified videos involving subjects such as nuclear weapons. In fact, Heston was even granted the highest level of security clearance during that time, giving him access to information the general public couldn’t even fathom.
After World War II, Heston would settle with his wife in New York with hopes of making it as television and stage actors. After years on Broadway, and numerous television roles, Heston was given the leading role for his first movie, Dark City in 1950. Two years later Heston would be cast in The Greatest Show On Earth, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year.
Heston would go on to star in iconic films such as The Secret Of The Incas (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), Touch Of Evil (1958), and Ben-Hur (1959) where he would go on to win an Academy Award for Best Actor (Ben-Hur won 11 Oscars that year).
Amidst all of this success, Heston somehow found time to pursue other endeavors. More specifically, Heston was a very active member of the Democratic party during his early days in the spotlight. In one instance in 1961, Heston stood outside and picketed his own film as it was being shown at a segregated theatre.
In 1963, Heston traveled with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his March on Washington, and would continue to accompany Dr. King as he traveled across the country delivering speech after speech, stating that he was in the business of civil rights “long before Hollywood found it fashionable.” The following year, Heston would endorse Lyndon B. Johnson for president, after LBJ was able to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Heston would soon begin to shift political alliances after Johnson was elected. While Heston was in favor of gun rights, following the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, Heston joined fellow actors Kirk Douglas, James Stewart, and Gregory Peck in voicing support for Johnson’s 1968 Gun Control Act.
In 1969, Charlton Heston was asked to run for Senate by the Democratic party, but the actor couldn’t give up on what he loved for a career as a politician. He would much rather work on his acting, as opposed to ‘act like he’s working.’ Plus, he was already serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild (which he held from 1965-1971).
Amidst his activism, Heston would continue to star in motion pictures during that time, appearing in films such as 1968’s Planet Of The Apes, its 1970 sequel Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, and a 1970 film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
Even though his passion was for the arts, Heston was always a major figure in American politics. After endorsing Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Heston completely switched sides, and began endorsing Republican candidates. When he was asked about why he changed his views, Heston claimed that he “didn’t change,” but that “the Democratic Party changed.”
In 1972, Heston would endorse Richard Nixon for president, and in the 1980’s Heston would take a strong position for gun rights. Heston would finally register as a Republican for good in 1987, and would go on to campaign for Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, respectively.
As he grew older, Heston became even more involved in shaping American culture. While he would continue to act, and provide narration to films such as Armageddon, and Disney’s Hercules, Heston was not one to let his perceived injustices go by without speaking up.
One shining example of Heston standing up for what he believed to be right came during, of all things, a Time Warner shareholder’s meeting. Heston criticized the company for releasing an album by the rapper Ice-T that included a song titled “Cop Killer.”
As a man who once stated that “political correctness is tyranny with manners,” it’s safe to say that Heston was never afraid to speak his mind. In a 1997 speech called “Fighting the Culture War in America,” Heston said that the media and politicians were trying to turn society against:
“..the God-fearing, law-abiding, Caucasian, middle-class Protestant – or even worse, evangelical Christian, Midwestern or Southern – or even worse, rural, apparently straight – or even worse, admitted heterosexuals, gun-owning – or even worse, NRA-card-carrying, average working stiff – or even worse, male working stiff – because, not only don’t you count, you are a down-right obstacle to social progress. Your voice deserves a lower decibel level, your opinion is less enlightened, your media access is insignificant; and frankly, Mister, you need to wake up, wise up, and learn a little something from your new America; and until you do, would you mind shutting up?”
Heston stood up for what he believed, including strongly opposing Affirmative Action for being, as he thought, an act of reverse discrimination. He felt as though this was just another example of cultural warfare, and said as much during that same 1997 speech:
“The Constitution was handed down to guide us by a bunch of wise old dead white guys who invented our country! Now some flinch when I say that. Why? It’s true – they were white guys! So were most of the guys that died in Lincoln’s name opposing slavery in the 1860s. So why should I be ashamed of white guys? Why is “Hispanic Pride” or “Black Pride” a good thing, while “White Pride” conjures shaven heads and white hoods? Why was the Million Man March on Washington celebrated by many as progress, while the Promise Keepers March on Washington was greeted with suspicion and ridicule? I’ll tell you why: Cultural Warfare!”
A staunch supporter of the Second Amendment, in 1998 Heston was named the president of the NRA. He would hold the position until stepping down in 2003. When he announced his resignation, he raised his rifle above his head and said they could take his gun “from his cold, dead hands!” That same year Heston retired from acting for good after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
In 2008, Charlton Heston passed away after battling a severe case of pneumonia. He was 84-years-old, but he had lived more than 20 men combined. While he is often remembered for being a strong conservative, Christian man, his children give a different account of their father. His son, Fraser, said the following on his late father:
“A lot of people look at him as this overly-conservative, rigid, Old Testament guy, but he wasn’t that sort of person at all. He was understanding, forgiving and loving as a husband, father and grandfather.”
During an interview with Closer, Heston’s daughter, Holly, opened up about her father as well:
“He had a big personality and a deep, passionate laugh. He loved life. He was warm, outgoing and all encompassing. He would walk into a room and it would change because he had such a presence. His life was his family in many ways. He loved his work, but his family meant so much to him.”
In his later years, Heston spent much of his time with his family, and his grandchildren in particular. Fraser reflects on his father’s relationship with his grandkids:
“They were the apples of his eye, as it should be. He spoiled them with good things. He didn’t just give them toys and extravagant gifts. He gave them his time, which is the most valuable thing you can possibly give a child.”
Many unfamiliar with Heston may have perceived him to be a strict, hardcore conservative, concerned with politics, but the accounts by his children paint a different picture of the beloved actor. They describe him as a loving father, who would do anything for his family, and those he loved.
While today’s celebrities like to play activist on social media, and during talk shows, Charlton Heston was a constant figure in American politics for over half a century. He was able to influence people both on and off-screen, and did his best to leave a positive impact on the world. He walked the Ten Commandments down the mountain, and he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for civil rights.
For those of us who were able to enjoy his career, we should consider ourselves lucky to have been witness to such an accomplished man of God. While we may never get another Charlton Heston in our lifetimes, the influence he had on society has left a huge impact. Maybe we will get lucky, and someone cut from the same mold will come along, and change the world for the better. Until then we will continue to admire the incredible career, and life of Charlton Heston.