As borderline fascist, right-wing gun nuts go, Charlton Heston was a pretty cool guy. When Heston died last week at the age of 84, almost all obits noted him for that jutting jaw, for playing Moses, and as the booming baritone voice of the nation's loony gun culture. It's true; Heston was elected president of the National Rifle Association in 1998, and spent his last couple decades as a doddering old coot, making cranky pronouncements about the inviolable, god-given right of men to blast holes through each other, and being a generally obnoxious conservative and spiritual brother to old Ronnie what's-his-name. It's a shame then that younger folks know him as a crotchety, pistol-packing Bible-thumper, and not as the chiseled, complicated, noble personification of American manhood that he was for much of his life.
When I was a kid, I didn't know squat about Heston's politics, I simply knew him as the kind of badass who was tough enough to slap the taste out of a gorilla's mouth and chuckle while he did it. Planet of the Apes loomed large in my childhood, as it did for a lot of people my general age and I'd rush home from school to catch the afternoon showings of "Ape Week" on local TV. Sure, I was drawn in by the talking monkeys, but I was also in awe of Heston's burly, thoughtful, macho humanist George Taylor. He was a malcontent, railing against mankind's abundant failings, but damned if he was going to let some stinking chimp run the planet. He was a vigorous, manly cynic but only because his optimism was so often thwarted. He was also a nuanced, contradictory figure, and Heston's portrayal blew my little mind.
Later I'd discovered his outsized work in Ben Hur and El-Cid, and of course the Ten Commandments. He also made quirky, politically progressive apocalyptic sci-fi flicks like The Omega Man and Soylent Green, pictures with imagination and ambition. He also made cheesy fluff like Earthquake and Airport 1975, but he did them with the same swaggering commitment he brought to the good ones, with the bearing and lunchpail work ethic of a real movie star in old Hollywood. An honest-to-gosh matinee giant, Heston never worked that well on TV because the screen truly wasn't big enough to contain him.
His political transformation came fairly late in life: Until the mid-'80s he was a registered Democrat, was president of the Screen Actor's Guild, and once upon a time campaigned for Adlai Stevenson and Jack Kennedy. In the '60s he was a vocal opponent of racism, joining picket lines in Oklahoma City and standing alongside such stars as Harry Belafonte and Sydney Poitier at the 1963 March on Washington. Later he challenged political correctness, quitting Actor's Equity because they opposed color-blind casting, something he had experience in, having portrayed a mustachioed Mexican man in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. Yes, he drifted toward the dark side, but at least he earned the right to be wrong, and just like his film scripts, he chose his battles without regard for consequences.
While some will remember Chuck clutching a rifle to be pried from his "cold dead hand," I'll prefer to remember him defiantly telling a "damn dirty ape" to back the hell off, a commandment that stood for any primate who ever told Charlton Heston what to think or challenged his right to speak out.