Interview with Charlton Heston

An activist for civil rights but a conservative by his own lights; dismissive of politics in film but supportive of film stars in politics…Hollywood's most outspoken star talks to REASON.


Politics and religion do mix, at least in Charlton Heston's public persona. Heston's rich voice and face "that belongs to another century," as he's put it, made him a top box-office draw in the 1950s and '60s in the Biblical roles of Moses and John the Baptist. He won an Academy Award as best actor for 1959's Ben Hur, the pinnacle of a career that now includes more than 50 films.

Though he will be forever identified with epics and biographical roles (The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told), some of Heston's most beguiling work was done in smaller, offbeat films…the Westerns Will Penny and Major Dundee and Orson Welles's Touch of Evil.

Heston is among the most outspoken and politically active figures in Hollywood. He was prominent in the civil rights movement of the early '60s, heading the arts contingent in the fabled March on Washington in August 1963.

He has since gained the reputation as a leader of Hollywood's right, particularly for his battles with Ed Asner, his fellow former Screen Actors Guild president, over the extent of SAG's political involvement. Heston is a friend and supporter of Ronald Reagan, a fan of William F. Buckley's National Review, and a fixture in the arts community.

He is also active in numerous nonpolitical charitable activities.

Since the late '60s, Heston has been besieged by politicians of both parties urging him to seek elective office. He has declined each time, his standard disclaimer: "I've played three presidents, three saints, and two geniuses. That should satisfy any man."

Heston is currently starring as the resolute patriarch Jason Colby in ABC-TV's The Colbys. His voice has lost none of its magisterial resonance, and at six foot three he still cuts a striking figure. He remains married to the former Lydia Clarke, his girlfriend at Northwestern University.

Charlton Heston was interviewed at his home in Beverly Hills, California, by Assistant Editor Bill Kauffman.

Reason: You seem, from the entries in your diaristic autobiography The Actor's Life, to be quite taken with both Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.

Heston: Yes. I've played both men, and thus, possibly, have a special predilection towards them. But I think they are unarguably among our greatest presidents. Certainly Jefferson, largely defined as the only genius ever to occupy the White House.

Reason: His philosophy that "that government is best which governs least"—are you sympathetic with that?

Heston: Oh, I'll sign that any day. There's no question that one of the most pernicious effects of modern society is the seeming impossibility of reversing the tendency of government to get bigger. It has under every administration, I guess, in the history of the Republic—certainly in this century. And despite all the protestations and brave assertions that if I'm elected we will cut big government, which has been included in the platforms of most men who ran for the presidency in the last 30 or 40 years, it doesn't stop.

Reason: Even Ronald Reagan doesn't seem to have made much headway.

Heston: No. No one has had an appreciable effect, even to slow it a little bit. It just goes on growing. And it is terribly wasteful. It's not just the money it costs. It's the wasted manpower, and it renders government clumsy and unresponsive.

Reason: So you have a fairly gloomy view of the prospects for improvement?

Heston: It's hard to be cheerful about it, isn't it? I think it's Parkinson's law that says that work and effort and the manpower applied to it expand exponentially according to the amount of time you give it. The more people you put on it, the more time you give them to do the job, the more job there seems to be to do. I've had more than a little public-sector experience, in organizations like the American Film Institute and the Screen Actors Guild and the National Council for the Arts, which is the body advisory to the National Endowment for the Arts, and a task force I ran, co-chaired with Hanna Gray, on the arts and humanities. I've come to feel very strongly, not as a joke, that if you appoint a committee of more than four people, their efficiency starts to deteriorate.

Reason: That's what's happened to the arts bureaucracy in this country, isn't it?

Heston: Oh yes. But, I'm sure it's true of every bureaucracy, including the armed services, including the financial community, the church, professional sports.

Reason: Does it make sense for government to subsidize the arts?

Heston: So the task force I chaired with Dr. Gray found, and so I agree. When the president asked me to head that task force, it was widely assumed in the press that we were simply undertaking to do a hatchet job on the arts. In the first place, that would have demonstrated a capacity to reverse bureaucratic expansion, which is impossible. In the second place, it wasn't what we set out to do. We appointed a large committee of quite distinguished administrators. And we concluded that the arts and humanities were a sufficiently valuable national resource to be at least as deserving of federal support as, say medicine and education.

Reason: I wonder, though, if government subsidization doesn't discourage private philanthropy, as it seems to in welfare?

Heston: Well, we found that not to be the case. I think there's a distinct difference between funding for the arts in Europe and here. In Europe, traditionally, the state funded the arts, going back to when the state meant popes and kings. So it's understandable if regrettable that in Europe the state pays for more or less everything, whereas in this country, quite the contrary was true. In the 19th century, there was no thought of government doing it, but there were any number of very wealthy men who were quite happy to do it. And now that the government has picked up a corner of this, there still is a very active role for private corporations.

Reason: What is your political philosophy? You started out as a Stevensonian Democrat, didn't you?

Heston: I did. He was the first presidential candidate I worked for. Twice.

Reason: Glutton for punishment, huh?

Heston: Well, he was an easy man to work for. He was a very attractive public figure. He was a very good speaker. In retrospect I feel that the public in their wisdom had chosen correctly in picking Eisenhower twice. It's a curious thing. We don't think well of our presidents when they are serving. Even Kennedy, with such a short presidency, was beginning to lose his remarkable appeal to the American people when he was suddenly sainted by death. If we look back over the years, at least in my lifetime, Roosevelt was widely vilified. So was Truman. Eisenhower was regarded as a bumbler by large segments of the press. It is curiously true that it is usually the press that leads this assault.

Reason: Well, isn't that their function?

Heston: No, it isn't their function. It is their right, but they tend to confuse right with responsibility. It is their right to criticize. It is their right to stand in opposition, but it is not their function.

Reason: We are the freer for the fact that the press is skeptical of the government, don't you think?

Heston: We are certainly freer for the fact that they have the right to be skeptical. That it should therefore follow that they become increasingly skeptical is a proposition that I think doesn't stand up under scrutiny.

Reason: Have your views changed since you were a Stevensonian Democrat, or has the Democratic Party changed?

Heston: The latter. I think the Democratic Party has moved sharply to the left in the last 20 years. If you read the inaugural address Jack Kennedy gave, you'll realize he could not possibly have given it on the platform the Democrats concocted at the last convention in San Francisco.

Reason: You were active in the civil rights movement in the early '60s. The Republicans were not involved—the Democrats were on the side of the angels, weren't they?

Heston: Well, I think a great segment of the American people was. A good many southern Democrats had their heels pretty deeply dug in, but it was not really a partisan position. I think it cut pretty broadly across the entire spectrum.

Reason: In retrospect, are you proud of your role in the civil rights movement?

Heston: Yes, I am indeed. Again, I think that movement has become radicalized. I knew Dr. King. I was proud to have followed him. I am very proud of the fact that I led the arts contingent on the civil rights march in the summer of '63. In many ways, I think it was the high-water mark of the civil rights movement. It has been widely credited—that single event—with being responsible for the passage of the Civil Rights Act the following year in the Congress.

Reason: King has been deified by progressives as well as the federal government, with the holiday, while on the right, people like Jesse Helms seem to think that he was a Communist dupe or something.

Heston: I question that. He was not a saint. He was a man, even like Moses was a man. He was a charismatic and effective leader who recognized the importance and the capacity for nonviolence to succeed. Even men who knew him then, like Jesse Jackson, have not recognized that.

Reason: Are you a disciple of nonviolence?

Heston: No. But Dr. King was. As was Gandhi. Both were fortunate in that they practiced nonviolence against people like Lyndon Johnson and Winston Churchill…

Reason: Rather than Joe Stalin.

Heston: Yeah. Nonviolence is—it's impossible in the world to support such an idea.

Reason: The public perception of you politically is that you are…

Heston: A registered Fascist.

Reason: Are you comfortable with the label "conservative"?

Heston: Yes. Particularly in both its general political meaning and the literal meaning, "to save."

Reason: Although there are some things that aren't worth preserving—segregation laws, things like that.

Heston: Yes, indeed.

Reason: There are a number of people in the film community who have public perceptions as conservatives. My guess is that while you're conservative economically, on the so-called social issues you're probably more tolerant.

Heston: Other than civil rights, which we've been discussing, define social issues.

Reason: The question of whether or not the state should proscribe certain forms of nonaggressive behavior—say, alternative lifestyles or smoking marijuana.

Heston: I think narcotics and, for that matter, alcohol, and even tobacco are enormously costly ingredients in our society.

Reason: But should the government…

Heston: That's what I'm stepping up to. The government not only has the right but the responsibility to take whatever draconian measures are necessary. Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus in the Civil War. Roosevelt spotted German submarines for the British Navy when we were at peace with Germany, and gave 'em 50 destroyers. In what I think is the most serious problem the world faces, which is the population explosion, we will come I think to a time when measures that are not even dreamt of now will become necessary.

Reason: Mandatory abortion?

Heston: Well, I find that difficult too, because I'm opposed to abortion. Even worse than that, we may have to close our borders, literally close them by martial law, and undertake God knows what horrendous—I made a movie about it once called Soylent Green. That is my principal political statement in filmmaking. But we may come to that with drugs or the AIDS epidemic.

Reason: But something like marijuana?

Heston: Well, I do not share my friend Bill Buckley's view that marijuana should be decriminalized. There was for a time a feeling that certain drugs like marijuana and LSD were essentially harmless. And I think the position on that is changing—the medical position. I suppose we will have to consider steps that we have dropped back from, such as putting really heavy political pressure on the countries—which are fortunately few and small and weak—that are responsible for most of the drug traffic. The profit is so enormous that the traffickers will take enormous risks.

Reason: In part the profit is enormous because it's illegal.

Heston: Of course, I understand that. And I understand that what you might do—it might in the end be cheaper—is to establish free drugs in controlled communities that simply were turned over to drug addicts. It would take a lot of people off the unemployment and welfare rolls too. But, you know, those problems are enormous.

Reason: The religious right is very concerned now with dirty rock lyrics and things like that. Is that something where you part company with some people on the right?

Heston: I don't think rock music has any positive function, but—the First Amendment does not really say that you can say and print anything you want. For instance, you could not make a movie graphically depicting the torture and murder and sexual abuse of a five-year-old girl. You simply would not be allowed to market such a thing.

Reason: But should you be allowed to market a film that shows an adult male and an adult female engaging in consensual sex?

Heston: I think the filmmakers have discovered, except for the few hard-core pornographic films which appeal to a limited audience, that the mechanics of sex are not as erotic to watch as people imagined.

Reason: They're boring.

Heston: Yeah, they're comical. The physical mechanics of sex are pretty funny unless you are engaged in them. Then they are, of course, marvelous. But in the mainstream film market, certainly in television, sex is handled fairly discreetly now. I think the abuse of extraordinarily graphic violence and language presses much closer to the tolerance of public taste.

Reason: A common complaint is that Hollywood is far more liberal than the rest of the country. Yet a number of recent films seem to celebrate patriotism or some variant thereof. Assuming that most people in the film community are more liberal than the country at large…

Heston: I think that would be an accurate assumption.

Reason: Why are these films being made?

Heston: Because they make money.

Reason: Is that a cynical exploitation of the popular mood, or…?

Heston: The prime motivation in making almost any film is success, because film is the art form of the 20th century. It is also the only art form whose raw materials are so horrendously expensive that the artist cannot afford to buy them for himself. Therefore he must borrow money from someone who expects to get it back, and that's fair. Therefore, it is simply necessary for a film to succeed. Now we've all had individual failures, but you can't have too many, or you don't get any more sets of toy trains to play with.

Reason: You've only made one overtly political film and a couple more with political sub-themes. Is it because you just think those films are usually boring or do you think that film as a medium, because it's more visual and less verbal, lends itself to the manipulation of emotion and demagoguery? The China Syndrome, for instance.

Heston: Well, who said politics was essentially verbal? Lenin in 1921 observed very presciently that motion pictures were the most powerful tool ever invented to shape the way we thought. He was right. Political films can be successful. They're very hard to do because they tend to turn into sermons, which can be very boring. But Soylent Green is not boring. The China Syndrome, with which I disagree most violently as an undertaking, is not boring.

Reason: How do you think Hollywood portrays business? Is it fair?

Heston: There are now only a few categories of totally acceptable villains. They include Protestant ministers, businessmen, small-town politicians, and military men above the rank of major. That's really about all the villains you can have—except aliens and drug pushers. But I did a miniseries a couple years ago in which I played a man who was a businessman and a small-town politician and a banker to boot.

Reason: The incarnation of pure evil.

Heston: Yes, and yet he was a thoroughly admirable figure. I said this was surely a network prime-time first. And of course in The Colbys, I got to invent Jason Colby.

Reason: Who is a sympathetic figure.

Heston: Who is a sympathetic figure who can be ruthless in business but unlike Larry Hagman in Dallas and Blake Carrington in Dynasty, Jason Colby will not lie or cheat to achieve his end. He will be uncaring of the business fate of a rival, but he is a man who does his best and keeps his promises and whose goal is to go through his own front door every night justified.

Reason: Why do you think series like Dynasty and The Colbys and Dallas—this genre of rich businessmen and established families…

Heston: Lives of the very rich.

Reason: Why are people interested in that?

Heston: Well, Esther Shapiro, who was responsible for inventing Dynasty and The Colbys says her inspiration was that marvelous BBC miniseries, I, Claudius. Because, she said, it is about very rich, very powerful, absolutely ruthless people who indulge their ambitions, their physical appetites, untrammeled. And she said in the modern world, politicians do not have that kind of ugly way, but the very rich do. And she's quite right. And there's the pleasure of the opulent rooms and the beautiful gowns and the Rolls Royces and the private jets. They like to watch that kind of carryings on. Curiously enough, in the beginning, Dynasty had an extensive story line involving the oil workers—the drillers on the rigs and so on—but they found that every time they did one of those stories, people were not so interested.

Reason: Do you think many of the people who watch these shows compare the luxury and the opulence on the screen to their own ordinary lives, and is that healthy?

Heston: Well, we saw the same thing in the '30s, didn't we, when there were all kinds of movies when unemployment was high and people were hungry? Ordinary middle-class people were living on the edge of poverty, and many movies were about rich heiresses and madcap playboys and people dashing about on ocean liners and dancing in white tie and tails and standing in beautiful rooms wearing beautiful clothes saying beautiful things to beautiful women. And the success of shows like Dynasty and The Colbys is based on the same thing.

Reason: Did you have any misgivings about getting back into television?

Heston: No. Of course, I began in live television.

Reason: The Golden Age.

Heston: The Golden Age that was also described at the same time as a vast wasteland by the chairman of the FCC. Now, had I not been able to acquire the creative controls that I have, I wouldn't have done it at all.

Reason: By starring in a weekly TV series, you sort of become part of a lot of people's families in absentia. How do you feel about that?

Heston: Well, no matter where an audience sees you—on stage or in that lovely intimate story-telling darkness of a movie theater, or in someone's bedroom—you are, to a certain extent, their property. You are the stuff of their fantasies, you reward them, you entertain them. My dissatisfaction with television as a medium has nothing to do with the audience or the fact that you don't require as much time to do it as you do a movie, but with its technical limitations.

Reason: Do you enjoy being a public person, both with your movie career and political activism?

Heston: I've been a public person for most of my life now. It has advantages and disadvantages. I can't take my kids to Disneyland. On the other hand, I can get a table at a restaurant or tickets to a play. You have to be very careful to view yourself with a somewhat skeptical eye and to remember that you're not here taking down everything I'm saying because you think I'm such a marvelous fellow but because your editors say go get 1,200 words or whatever on Chuck Heston. It skews not only the way you look at yourself, but the way other people look at you. In the case of other people, by and large, unless you're an awful horse's ass, they look at you for the better and say and think very nice things about you, but you have to bear in mind those things aren't necessarily true.

Reason: What do you think the public perception of you is?

Heston: The vast majority of the audience thinks I am a marvelous fellow. A considerable majority of serious Democrats think I'm a registered Fascist—but not all. It's surprising, when I was considering running for the Senate—a notion which I didn't really consider very long—a good number of Democratic friends of mine said things like, "We've never voted for a Republican in our lives, but we'll vote for you," which is naturally gratifying.

Reason: I wonder if it's like the conservative football players or athletes who've gotten into politics and are generally much more liberal on things like civil rights because, as someone once said, they've showered with black guys.

Heston: I suppose that might be true. You know, you could readily construct an argument that actors tend, certainly on civil rights, to see them as a desirable thing because actors themselves have been and continue to be the victims of discrimination. I have played in a summer theater where there was a street in the town the actors weren't supposed to cross. The community was a very conservative Amish community, but they liked coming to the theater and they liked to have the theater there, but they didn't want them screwing their daughters, or indeed even walking on the same street with them.

Reason: Which would inevitably lead to screwing them.

Heston: Yes. And actors are widely regarded as drunks, braggarts, and wife stealers.

Reason: To what extent is that true?

Heston: Probably to some extent! Actors, after all, began as itinerant vagabonds wandering from village to village, when most people never moved more than five or ten miles from the place they were born. And actors wandered around sleeping in stables, gulling the locals with the old three-walnut-shells-and-a-pea gag and doing somersaults and walking on their hands and then sleeping in the stable—if possible, with one of the local girls.

Reason: Is there a tendency to patronize the audience and to assume that the audience is less bright and less hip than the people onstage?

Heston: I don't know that that's true. I think we all like to think of ourselves as pretty knowing people, and actors are no exception, but actors are themselves patronized. Look at how firmly set is the obviously incorrect presumption that for some reason, actors are unqualified for political service, when obviously they're better qualified than most people because of their clear communication skills. Performance skills are widely deplored, even by politicians, but you cannot be effective as a political leader without them. Winston Churchill was an extraordinary actor. So is Castro. So was De Gaulle. Roosevelt. Jack Kennedy. Even to the extent of readily identifiable props and wardrobe. Castro hasn't been in the Sierra Maestra for 25 years, but he still goes around in combat fatigues—and so he should.

Reason: Do you look on interviews as duties that you have to carry out unenthusiastically?

Heston: Well, it depends on the forum involved. Your magazine interests me politically, and it's a serious magazine of opinion. But, like anything else, some interviews are more interesting and equal than others. People assume that actors are automatically good at doing interviews and public speeches. That's really not true. It's a separate skill you have to learn. Like many actors, I am, in fact, a somewhat shy person, but I have learned to be a public person. God knows I've had enough practice at it.

Reason: Well, since you've had so much practice, I'll ask you one question I'm sure everyone has asked you. What's been your favorite role and what are you most proud of?

Heston: That's difficult. It's a hard question because roles please you for different reasons. If they're very successful, either financially or in terms of winning prizes, both those things are valuable in a material as well as an ego sense. If you do a role that's a very difficult role and it comes out well, that's of course rewarding. If you do some of the great classical roles, you're joining a line of actors that goes back for centuries. I'm as proud of the fact that I have done three Shakespearian films as I am of anything else. The fact that I've done maybe a dozen or so biographical films is rewarding to me. I'm also pleased that I've made pictures that have won prizes and made a lot of money. But not all of those parts were as creatively difficult as, say, playing Antony or Macbeth.

Reason: Any great characters that you've always wanted to play and fear that you'll never get the chance?

Heston: I surely now will never play Othello. It would be very difficult for any white actor this side of Laurence Olivier to play Othello. The great Shakespearian roles, you have to have worked on all your life, as I have Macbeth. Realistically, you want to stick to the parts that you have already devoted years of work to, because the parts are such man-killers.

Reason: One of the most striking images in any of your films is at the end of Planet of the Apes, where Taylor stands in the sand and looks at…

Heston: Oh yes. "Damn you, goddam you all to hell!"

Reason: …at the decaying and forgotten Statue of Liberty. It's a very pessimistic film. Is that your worldview, with your worries about the population crisis and such?

Heston: Well, I think it's a distinct possibility. I guess the sum of my opinion in that area is that I believe profoundly and absolutely in the capacities of the individual man, the extraordinary man—but I'm very skeptical about mankind.