Charlton Heston, RIP


Yes, we're late to the wake, but it's important to note that the giant chest of American post-war cinema is no more. Cue former reasoner and current abs-ophile Tim Cavanaugh:

I'd like to stand up for the trilogy of dystopian science fiction of which Planet of the Apes is merely the first part. The New York Times doesn't even mention Soylent Green or The Omega Man in its obit, and our own coverage is pretty dismissive of both. (Planet of the Apes is now canonical enough that highbrows belittle it at their own risk.) I'd argue that both those movies are touched by greatness and live on for, if nothing else, the insights they provide into the culture of their time.

The Omega Man—which opens with Heston tooling around an empty, post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (the city where the world was meant to end, god damn it!) and, in a brilliant touch, watching, over and over again, the only movie still playing, Woodstock—is as full an examination of the relationship between the establishment and the counterculture as any film of its time. It's an olive branch from Heston to the hippies, with the hero repulsed, fascinated and ultimately in love with the groovy kids he recognizes as the only future for mankind. Who else but Heston could have been at the same time hip enough and square enough to share a hot makeout scene with the late Rosalind Cash, and have that actually mean something? That Anthony Zerbe's black-robed zombie inquisitioner puts a face of intolerance and anti-reason onto the rhetoric of progress ("Put away the old ways, brother, all the old hatreds") just shows that even when Heston put a hand out to the flower children, he did so recognizing that they shared a common enemy in unreason.

Then there's Soylent Green, which has suffered mightily from partial recognition. Everybody knows the film's hokey last-act revelation, but hardly anybody appreciates the sense of exhaustion, world-weariness and dismay at modernity that endures long after the movie's warning about overpopulation has failed to meet expectations. Heston, who could always play a great ennui-filled cynic, is crucial to making that work. In addition to a chilling opening-credit sequence, the film offers Heston and Edward G. Robinson in an emotional death scene that manages to be bizarre, disturbing, sarcastic and moving all at once.

Whole thing here.

Aye, but what of his politics? (Which, during my half-asleep consumption of NPR this morning I heard described along the lines of "Charlton Heston was a great actor, but later in life grew more and more conservative.")

Well, luckily for you we have a reason interview with Moses himself from April 1987. A taste:

reason: [Jefferson's] 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 governnment clumsy and unresponsive. […]

reason: [Martin Luther] 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 them.

reason: Are you a disciple of nonviolence?

Heston: No. […]

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.


NEXT: It Feels Like a Hundred Years

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  1. I didn’t know the man but my guess is that he was a decent fellow. He was a pretty good actor who did things with his life that the rest of us might admire.

  2. He was a very good actor and endorsed civil rights when it wasn’t popular to do so, as well as eloquently defending gun rights later on. R.I.P.

  3. Well, he was a hammy actor.

    He was also a legendary actor. RIP.

  4. I’d make a gun about taking his gun from his cold, dead hands, but he deserves better than that. He was a cool dude. RIP.

  5. My father meant him twice in a social settings.
    You called him “Chuck” and when you talked with Chuck you talked about Chuck.
    Good guy overall.
    I remember he had, well not a debate with Paul Newman, just presenting the opposite side of what Newman was presenting on Nightline about the Nuclear freeze movement.
    I missed it, but my roomate didn’t. Guess who won he asked, remembering my father’s conversation about Chuck I guessed Newman. My roommate shook his head and said Chuck slaughtered Newman. My roommate was a big liberal. I was shocked.
    The guy was much more intelligent then your average actor.
    I wonder what kind of guns he has? I wonder if they’ll be auctioned?

  6. Haven’t read the article yet, but jesus that is the worst, dumpiest photo of Nova I’ve ever seen. Doesn’t do her justice.

  7. May the FSM bless him. He was a man never afraid to take up the cause of freedom no matter how unpopular that freedom may be. From civil rights to gun rights, he always stood up for freedom.

  8. Am I missing the link to the interview?

  9. About that movie where he played a Mexican. The story goes that Heston stepped in when the studio wanted to drop Welles as director. He said he signed on for a Welles picture and wouldn’t do it without him. That was a class move.

  10. Kim — No; we’re just scouring the archive for an electronic version.

  11. And who could possibly forget his legendary role in this?

  12. I miss Eddie G. much more than I miss him.

  13. Until the Reason Interview shows up you can always check out ALEX JONES INTERVIEWS CHARLTON HESTON

  14. Cavanaugh has also given a spirited defense of Keanu Reeves’ acting ability. Either he is a shitty judge of acting or he really does get lost in a good set of washboard abs. Possibly both.

  15. he had an amazing speaking voice. he was a pretty good actor but he was only right for larger then life roles, he would look totally ridiculus in some cassavettes type indie drama cause you don’t meet ordinary people who look and sound charlton heston.

    i’ve been defending most of my 20s thus far and i’ve only really started becoming a real fan in the last couple years. the character assasination piece…i mean…’bowling for columbine” started me off on my hatred for michael moore when it came out. it just angers then a generation of smug, know it all, 19 year old liberal college students think he’s some racist old nutbag cause they saw that bullshit doc.

    he marched for civil rights in the 60s, he fought for great directors like orson welles and sam peckinpah to have final cut on the films they did with him (to no avail at the time sadly). granted, he has a square christian conservative streak in him i don’t care for personally but most of what i’ve read about him in the past just says all around good guy to me and it’s a shame the nasty things that get said about him cause of the nra association and “bowling for columbine”.

    rip chuck

  16. Heston din’t even know what countries border Iraq. Really bright guy.

  17. # drawnasunder | April 7, 2008, 8:06pm | #
    # Haven’t read the article yet, but jesus that
    # is the worst, dumpiest photo of Nova I’ve
    # ever seen. Doesn’t do her justice.

    I agree that this wasn’t her best angle or lighting, but she still manages to look better in this picture than any five or ten Italian, Greek, or French import hotties who were praised for their raw sex appeal during the same cinematic era.

    See better stills of Linda Harrison here:

  18. Will Soylent Green be served at the wake?

  19. “All my life I’ve known of your coming going and dreaded it … like death itself.”

  20. Will Soylent Green be served at the wake?

    Soylent Groan is made of people’s responses to jokes that are feeble! FEEEEEEBLLLLE!


  21. As for me, I will always remember him in “Airport 1975″….Heston actually learned how to fly a Boeing 747 and is seen actually flying one through the Rockies in one scene.

  22. What countries border Iraq?

  23. t.j. said it very well. Heston was fucking great–he was bigger than life, sort of like a serious, truly successful Bruce Campbell, where he would be ridiculous in a “normal” role. Yeah, he was a bit of a Christian square but that didn’t stop him from being on the right side of most things. He also understood who had talent. He actually charged Sam Peckinpah on his horse during the making of Major Dundee but that didn’t stop him from supporting him.

  24. If anyone is interested they have a ton of archived speeches of Heston at

    Personally I respect the fact that he didn’t live his life in a politically correct fashion.
    Granted his acting talent allowed him to pursue that course but you rarely see an artist these days speak there mind counter to the popular views of the day.

  25. Heston din’t even know what countries border Iraq. Really bright guy

    Easy to sneer after 18 years of having Iraq on the news every day. In 1990 you wouldn’t have known either, smart guy.

  26. MK2,

    Quick, what countries border Cameroon? How about Albania? What’s the atomic weight of Bismuth? Who was Taft’s Secretary of State? Who was the fourth man on the moon?

    Encyclopedic knowledge of trivia might win you a tab at the bar, but it doesn’t qualify you as “bright.” Being able to find the information when you need it usually suffices.

  27. It was just a refference to the time Christopher Hitchens caught Heston off guard by asking him what countries border Iraq. It made Heston, a big supporter of the war against Iraq, look like a fool.

  28. And your failure to answer Hugh’s question makes you look like a fool. I guess it all works out.

  29. But Heston didn’t have to do anything to make Hitchens look like an asshole and a drunk, now did he?

  30. Heston was a good actor with all sorts of scene-chewing gravitas, and he was a fantastic spokesman for the right to keep and bear arms.

    Hitchens is an asshole and a drunk, and I love him for it.

  31. I’m a fan of most of his work, and his death signals an end to an era. There aren’t many actors that can dominate the screen the way he did. And he appears to have been someone who thought for himself, an all-too-rare trait in his industry.

  32. scene-chewing gravitas

    That’s a great phrase, mediageek. I’m stealing that when he comes up in conversation.

  33. Heston was mediocre actor and useful idiot of the gun lobby. Hitchens is a brilliant writer.

  34. I still think the best part of Soylent Green is the term furniture.

  35. From the NRA archives, a speech made by the late Heston to a class of Harvard graduates.

    I never knew much about Mr. Heston, but after reading this speech I was convinced of his intelligence and integrity. My favorite part was when he told the story of speaking at a shareholder’s meeting for Time/Warner. The company was making oodles of money from a popular Ice T album that talks about killing cops. He stood in front of the audience and read the lyrics to a few of the songs. He shamed and shocked several people and left the stage to a completely silent room, jaws hanging. When the media met with him they said, “We can’t print that!” He replied, “I know, but Time/Warner’s selling it!” That’s the kind of frankness, honesty, and brilliance I admire in a man. I wish I could have met him. RIP

  36. Danny:

    Yes, Charlton Heston had the ‘frankness, honesty and brilliance’ to try and make words that offended him illegal. If only more of us had that strength of will.


  37. Mr. ithaqua —

    Sorry, but you fail at reading.

    I didn’t see anything in the linked speech that called for making any words illegal.

    Heston was trying to shame Time/Warner into not selling rap records with lyrics that Heston considered obscene (as would most other people, or at least the representatives of the press and stockholders and Time/Warner executives present). This was morally equivalent to, say, calling for the boycott of a company whose president regularly used racist language, or whose management discriminated against women. It was a completely private-sector action and an attempted use of persuasion and nonviolent social sanction, by bringing up the subject before the company’s executives, stock-owners and (via the press) its customers and the public at large.

    I don’t consider bad language on a rap record to be that serious of a threat, myself, but I have to admit that Heston’s tactics for making his point were brilliant, and they were perfectly legit from a civil libertarian perspective.

  38. the whole copkiller thing is probably one of my least favorite things he’s done cause i’m not one those “moral decay” types but whatever.noone agrees on everything. theres still a lot i admire about him.

  39. “What’s the atomic weight of Bismuth”

    Delicious. Or snacktastic.

  40. Their are things about Mr. Heston that I can admire and things that I totally reject and detest about him.

    He stood up for civil rights, long before it was popular or fashionable to do so. Yet, he was a man who increasingly moved to the political/religious right.

    He has initially supported gun control, and while he did change his mind, his tenure with the NRA often involved defending freedom by attacking other people’s freedoms (i.e. gays).

    In the 1990s he rewrote part of his biography to cover up his work with Gore Vidal on Ben Hur, regarding Vidal’s useage of a homoerotic subtext.

    Thus I can admire him for supporting equal rights for racial and ethnic minorities, but cringe at his apparent homophobia.

    I can admire his support for the 2nd Amendment, but wonder if he forget about the 1st and 14th Amendment.

    Personally, I see him having a lot in common with Mike Moore. I find that when you are dealing with people on the political left and right, especially public figures, they tend to very smart and dumb, enlighten and prejudiced at the same time.

  41. “Baywatch, the show that launched a thousand adolescent dreams”

    Only a thousand??? I demand a recount!

  42. Damn! Wrong thread. Never done that before. Sorry.

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