You may know Charlton Heston from Ben Hur, The Planet of the Apes, or The Ten Commandments. But biographer Marc Eliot tells us about Heston’s other side. He was a soldier, a liberal, and a conservative in his 84 years. He walked with Dr. King and became president of the NRA. Eliot discusses how his politics impacted his career and his legacy.

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  • Marc Eliot, biographer and author of Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon

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Charlton Heston

Gary Price: Charlton Heston is one of the most famous actors of all time. From playing Moses in “The Ten Commandments” to winning an Oscar as Ben Hur, Charlton Heston’s film career is iconic.

Marc Eliot: Heston was probably the most popular actor in terms of box office and broad appeal in the ‘50s.

Price: That’s Marc Eliot, a historian and author of “Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon.” Eliot suggests that to see Heston’s popularity in his era, you need only to know that he was in the three highest grossing live action films of the 1950s: The Greatest Show on Earth, The Ten Commandments, and Ben Hur.

Eliot: There’s really little doubt that in terms of popularity nobody was bigger than Heston. You had other actors like Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Gregory Peck, they were all big stars, but their movies didn’t have the universal appeal that Heston had.

Price: Despite such booming success at the box office and an Oscar to his name, Eliot says Heston is remembered largely for his political activism, first as a liberal and then as a conservative. Eliot says Heston’s political journey is a little more difficult to track, beginning when he went to serve his country in World War II.

Eliot: Heston was a young man in Northwestern when Pearl Harbor happened. The next day he enlisted in the Armed Forces, in the Army. He was called up about a year later. He was sent to radio school to be a radio operator. Eventually at the end of basic training he was sent to the Aleutians. And those planes that were there were fighting the Japanese. So they always had a radio guy on board who kept the plane in touch with the base, got their signals, got their direction while the pilot and the crew battled. So he was on dozens of missions.

Price: Though Heston wasn’t hurt in battle, Eliot says the memory of his service was foundational in Heston’s development.

Eliot: What the war did for him is that it matured him, it gave him a sense of adulthood that he didn’t have when he enlisted when he was really a boy at college. That was something that stayed with him his whole life, this sense of having seen the worst of humanity, he then strove to be a part of the best of humanity.

Price: Eliot says that for a long time, Heston was a vocal part of the civil rights community and, as a result, he was an outspoken Democrat.

Eliot: He supported John F. Kennedy, he supported Lyndon Johnson, he even supported Adelai Stevenson in 1956. In 1963, he marched along with Martin Luther King in the great march on Washington. He led the Hollywood branch of that march. So he was a liberal.

Price: But after years of liberal activism, Heston’s political leanings began to sway.

Eliot: In 1968, Heston went to Vietnam, not in the way that Bob Hope or any of the big celebrities did with TV shows and all of that. He actually went on his own with a few State Department officials and traveled to all the places where the soldiers were actually battling – in Da Nang – places like that, met with the soldiers, took all their phone numbers and addresses and made it a point when he came home to call each of the families to say greetings and that their sons were all right. When he went to Vietnam and saw how these soldiers were putting their lives on the line and then came home and saw all the protests, many of which blamed the soldiers, you know, “you shouldn’t have gone, you’re fighting a bad war,” that was not the soldiers’ job; most of them were drafted and really had no choice. So that is the beginning of the shift of Heston away from liberal politics and toward a more conservative politics.

Price: Eliot says this changing perspective didn’t just impact his personal politics, but began to impact the career choices Heston was making.

Eliot: His films began to reflect a more fundamental type hero—a hero who was always a patriot, always a good guy, always hero and very rarely died on screen.

Price: Despite his changing views, Eliot says Heston never lost his belief in social causes.

Eliot: Even when Ronald Reagan mentored Heston into the Screen Actors Guild, put him on the board of SAG, and eventually when Reagan went into politics and ended his show business career, he gave up his position as the president of SAG. Two or three presidents later, Heston became SAG’s president. While he was president he continually lobbied for the rights of actors to expand all their benefits, their retirement money, their medical. So he was always fighting for that.

Price: Heston even felt emboldened to oppose his old mentor Reagan when their priorities didn’t align.

Eliot: When Reagan was elected President of the United States one of the first things that he did was to cut the budget for the Council on the Arts and the Endowment for the Arts, all of which affected things like film preservation and the American Film Institute, the AFI, [of] which he was also on the board. He then went to Washington and personally lobbied to keep these programs alive. And after six months of a very public debate with his pal Ronald Reagan, Reagan then acquiesced and restored 80 percent of that money. As a result of that the AFI was able to stay in existence. Today the AFI is one of the mainstays of film preservation.

Price: Eventually, Heston stumbled upon a mutually beneficial role supporting the National Rifle Association.

Eliot: Later on in his life when the roles started to dwindle, he was essentially an action hero, not a romantic hero like, say Cary Grant or Gregory Peck. As he aged the opportunities for those roles became fewer, so he became more involved in public causes. In the mid-eighties, the NRA was almost broke. They were almost out of business. What they wanted was some Hollywood figure who could put a face on the NRA that would be appealing to a great many people. They asked Heston to appear at a fundraiser, and Heston said he would do it.

Price: After gaining popularity within the organization, Heston became one of the organization’s most recognizable figures and even became president of the NRA.

Eliot: Just as he was becoming ill, just before he was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease he made this one speech where people think it was a spontaneous thing, “you can take this gun from my cold, dead hands,” and it got a round of applause and cheers and all that, that was actually a written speech that he had prepared and the phrase, “cold, dead hands” had been used for years. It was in several Hollywood movies. It was something that was a catchphrase for the NRA, but nobody really got the attention for using it until Heston did it that day and there happened to be a news organization there filming that speech.

Price: Ultimately, Eliot says that speech cemented Heston’s place in the public eye as a staunch conservative.

Eliot: With Heston, most people remember “cold dead hands” more than they remember Moses, more than they remember Ben Hur, especially younger people. To them, Heston became this symbol for a kind of a radical determination to stand up for the National Rifle Association. And did the NRA exploit him? Probably. I mean they were opportunistic, they wanted someone to help revive their popularity. But on the other hand, did Heston use the NRA to keep his popularity, to put him before live audiences where he could, in effect, perform as “Charlton Heston” – hero? So it’s an interesting set of circumstances and because it was really the last thing he did in his career it’s the thing that stays with him the most.

Price: Eliot says that unfortunately, the “cold dead hands” speech has at times been used against Heston’s legacy.

Eliot: The AFI, which now has an annual Person of the Year award, they give a lifetime achievement, has never acknowledged Charlton Heston. That’s something, although he never regretted what he did with the NRA, never for a moment, he did feel that the price he paid was very high and it’s one of the things about the AFI that I talk about in this book, even though he did so much to save them, to keep them alive, they turned their back on him in the end. That’s a very powerful moment I think in his life.

Price: While his politics were divisive, Eliot says in the end, none of it can overshadow what a life and career Charlton Heston had.

Eliot: If you’re a student of Hollywood, if you love Hollywood movies, if you are interested in the mechanism of Hollywood, it’s difficult to really have a complete knowledge of that without Charlton Heston. He’s important in almost every aspect of filmmaking, regardless of whether you like him as an actor, whether you like him as a lobbyist, any of that, you have to acknowledge that he is iconic in what he gave to Hollywood and what he gave to America as an actor, performer and activist.

Price: Marc Eliot’s book, “Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon” is available now. For more information about all of our guests, visit our site at viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.