Admiration for the movie star Charlton Heston poured out of the obituaries and appreciations when he died. He would say he was an actor, which he certainly was, but he was also a star, a riveting presence that could credibly play great men like Moses. But the story of Heston's activism came like a cautionary note, that he used to be a civil rights hero, but then he wandered badly astray.
Many were struck at the similarities of the late careers of Heston and Ronald Reagan, two actors who became more conservative as the 20th century moved on, and both passed away through the long and difficult descent of Alzheimer's Disease. Journalists and biographers who suggest a dramatic conversion of these two men - sometimes with a nasty implication that they cynically switched sides in the debate to keep their faltering careers alive - often fail to acknowledge how the political and cultural ground shifted under their feet, causing the leap.
Part of that trend, especially for Heston, was a dramatic devolution in popular culture. The Sixties counterculture championed peace and love on the surface, but underneath the salesmanship, it was all about undermining "The System," an oppressive social structure that included everything that men such as Heston held dear, from the military to the police; from the principle of monogamous marriage to the institution of the family; from the principle of limited government to the sanctity of the First Amendment.
And the Second Amendment, too. Heston's last bold act on the political scene was leading the National Rifle Association at the turn of the century, at a time when school shootings were dominating the news and media of all kinds were blaming the NRA for the violence. They didn't assess the same kind of blame to violence-glorifying movies and gangsta-rap music.
So Heston did. In 1992, Heston was a central figure in the drama over the rap song "Cop Killer," from rapper Tracy "Ice-T" Marrow and his side project called Body Count. Heston almost single-handedly ended the distribution of the song by standing up at a Time Warner stockholders meeting in Beverly Hills and reading the lyrics in that sonorous voice: "I'm 'bout to kill me something / A pig stopped me for nothin' / Die, die, die, pig, die / F-- the police!"
Ice-T wasn't kidding. During the Los Angeles riots that year, Ice-T talked to the Los Angeles Times on his cell phone as he drove through the devastation, touting how the riots confirmed his lyrics of inner-city rage: "Black people look at the cops as the Gestapo...Justice is a myth if you're black. Of course people will riot."
Heston also stunned the audience by reading "the sexually explicit words of a rap song that alludes to [sex with] Tipper Gore's young nieces." At the start of 1993, Time Warner cited "creative differences" and ended its seven-year business relationship with Ice-T. Heston liked to say he got the rapper "fired" with his protest, and wished the man well with some amusement in a letter to the Los Angeles Times when Dick Wolf hired him to play a gangster-turned-cop on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." To Heston, it was not personal; it was about the obscene, socially destructive message of the song.
Heston's authority as an entertainment critic came from his authority as an entertainer, and an artist. Yet he did not seek the spotlight, and certainly didn't need the resulting P.R. headache when he championed unpopular (in his industry, anyway) causes. He spoke out when he felt that speaking out was crucial. In a 1999 speech at Harvard, he recalled his lyric-reading at the TimeWarner meeting. When he re-read the lyrics to the press corps outside, one reporter said, "We can't print that, you know." Heston replied: "I know, but Time Warner is still selling it." Heston knew he was offending Time magazine and Warner Brothers entertainment. "But disobedience means you have to be willing to act, not just talk."
I saw him last in 1994. He had agreed to co-host (with Michael Medved) a private dinner party, with several dozen Hollywood producers, directors, writers and actors in attendance, to discuss the launch of the Parents Television Council. He was no Ben Hur that night. He walked slowly to the podium, limping badly from a painful horseback riding accident in Mexico. But when he spoke, it was magic. He did not lecture, or pontificate. He was before his peers. He spoke as softly as that wondrous voice of his would allow, but with authority. He expressed his affection for his industry, and his sorrow that it had become so decadent. He called on his peers to restore Hollywood to its greatness. You could hear a pin drop. It was an extraordinary, heartfelt appeal.
It is tragic that Chuck Heston has left the stage. His voice is needed today more than ever