Charlton Heston, Hollywood Rebel

Charlton Heston has died. I did not know him; and so I will not endeavor to write an obituary of the private man, other than to acknowledge that those who knew him personally will feel his loss greatest. My sympathy is offered to them during the painful transition that always follows a death.

No, the obituary I want to write is that for the public man, who (in the strange but real way that is inherent in being a modern celebrity) became a part of the lives of millions who never met him.

There are actors who are chameleons, who blend so seamlessly into the role they play that you cannot even recognize them at first, and this is a wonderful talent. There are also actors who bring a powerful continuity to their roles, inserting key elements of their own personality into each character in a way that, paradoxically, increases the authenticity of the role. This too is a wonderful talent, and Charlton Heston was most definitely of this latter school of acting.

Any movie he appeared in became a “Charlton Heston movie.” He had a presence and a confidence that overwhelmed circumstances. Who else could offer up a powerful, moving and memorable performance in a movie in which he battled men riding horses in really bad monkey suits? That’s talent. And his same core-character was just as believable and moving when battling Romans or cowboys or meeting God and Jesus face to face.

Charlton Heston was simply cool. The source of that cool was his obvious confidence. The guy knew who he was. He was Charlton Heston — even when he was Moses or Ben-Hur or a lost astronaut.

What he did with that confidence in the later years of his life, when most of us would be doing good just to check the mailbox regularly, was one of the most amazing things about him. He took his celebrity and presence and went into the political arena, fighting for the gun rights of millions of Americans who didn’t have his access to media and power. Heston served as president of the National Rifle Association from 1998 to 2003.

Step back and consider what an act of real rebellion this was. It wasn’t the plastic rebellion against traditional America that is so common and predictable in Hollywood. He could have had that safe and conformist claim to being a rebel just for the asking. Instead, Mr. Heston stood up and defended what he had been raised to believe in.

Traditional American government is about keeping power distributed in a way that supports freedom and protects against authoritarianism, including paternalistic authoritarianism. Property rights, voting rights, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and legal rights are all protected by law so as to keep a great deal of real power in the hands of individuals. This is what makes us free, to the extent that we still are.

Charlton Heston, like the founding fathers that encoded our political culture in the Constitution, understood that the distribution of power has to extend to that most direct and compelling form of power: the power of arms. Free men have a right to legitimate uses of violence — and they have a right to the means to commit violence when necessary.

Think of the confidence it took for Heston to withstand the pressure of his peers later in life. When he stood up on a national stage as a celebrity, he could have urged us to save the whales or the ozone or Tibet or some other well-worn and unquestioned leftist cliché. Instead, he lifted a patriot’s muzzleloader above his head and declared as a free man, with all the world watching, that government could take his gun only when they pried it “from my cold dead hands.”

In Hollywood, it’s not rebellion to get stoned and drive your car into a pole anymore. It’s not rebellion to trash your own culture or bemoan the constraints of tradition. It’s rebellion to not do these things. When Heston stood up on that stage that day, he was a true rebel. James Dean could have taken notes.

Even after his death, his powerful hands continue to grasp defiantly, through the rich legacy he has left us all.

Charlton Heston was 84.