When I came home one evening in 1997, I could not believe the message on my answering machine: "This is Charlton Heston’s office. Will you take a call from Mr. Heston? The number to call is. . . "
Sure, I had seen the famed actor and president of the National Rifle Association speak but we had no personal acquaintance. As far as I knew, the man known to the world for his portrayal of Moses in "The Ten Commandments" may well have been familiar with HUMAN EVENTS, but he had no idea who I was. And why was he calling me at home instead of the office?
Without taking off my jacket, I dialed the number in Los Angeles. “Hello” was the response, in a resonant voice I knew instantly. I promptly introduced myself and Heston told me the purpose of the call. He had been told I could give him some background on the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigation into Communist penetration of the film industry in the late 1940’s. Recalling how he had been discharged from the Army Air Corps after World War II and only came to Hollywood in 1950, he had completely missed the hearings held in 1948 — which featured appearances by such spirited anti-Communists as Walt Disney, Adolph Menjou, Robert Taylor, and Ronald Reagan, who held the position Heston himself would later hold as president of the Screen Actors Guild.
With obvious enthusiasm — and completely forgetting to ask how he got my name or precisely why he needed this information — I proceeded to tell Heston about the hearings, the roles of young Rep. Richard Nixon (R-Cal.) and chief committee investigator Bob Stripling (with whom I had conducted interviews at length ten years earlier), and the Hollywood Ten — screenwriters who went to prison after Stripling showed their Communist Party membership cards and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt they had committed perjury before the committee.
Heston listened attentively and asked a few questions. I answered what I could and then said that I would have articles written by editor, Allan Ryskind (an authority on that period) the next day. Gracious to a fault, Heston thanked me profusely.
Unable to contain myself, I had to tell him how I had recently been home to see my parents and that my father and I watched a video about one of our favorite Heston films, Omega Man. Heston portrayed Robert Neville, one of the few survivors of a worldwide plague who had not become a vampire-like creature of the night. (The film had been made before as The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price and remade in ’07 as I am Legend with Will Smith). And I had to mention that Linda Jenkins, my friend and colleague at the office, went to the same high school as his female lead in the film, Rosalind Cash.
“And it was sad that Rosalind passed away so young,” said Heston, genuinely sad about the actress’s death. “And you know we had what was the first inter-racial kiss on the screen, something significant because only a few years earlier, I had marched for civil rights with Dr. Martin Luther King.”
The following morning, having told Linda and all my colleagues about the call from “Moses,” we set out to help him. Allan Ryskind quickly found the articles on HCUA and Hollywood and intern Ben Domenich faxed them to, as he called him, “Mr. Heston — and he confirmed he got them from me. I talked to him!”
Rose the cleaning lady got into the act. She told me she was a rabid Heston fan, that since I spoke to him, I might be able to procure an autographed picture for her. I called Heston’s secretary that day and, sure enough, the photo, warmly inscribed to Rose, came within a week. (Running into Rose at church last year, I found she not only remembered Heston’s kindness but still had the picture).
Although that was my first and only conversation with Charlton Heston, it seems as though his name continually came up in the context of my work covering U.S. politics. In 1985, suggestions were rampant that Heston run for the U.S. Senate the following year from California against liberal Democratic incumbent Alan Cranston. In Michigan during the 1980’s, where Heston once lived, there was a boomlet launched by then-Republican National Committeeman Peter Secchia to run Heston against Democratic Sen. Carl Levin. It didn’t matter that Heston had not lived in Michigan for decades — strong residency claims did not apply to Moses, Ben Hur, or Michelangelo (other roles immortalized by Heston). But in the end, Heston put all the rumors he would run for the Senate to rest: why should he run for the Senate, he mused aloud, when he had played a President three times?
A year after we spoke, Heston was the guest speaker at a black tie dinner commemorating the founding of Paul Weyrich’s National Empowerment Television network. It meant leaving work early and imposing on someone to tie my bow tie but I made it. Heston was superb and, while he had told the story scores of times before, he nonetheless delighted his audience with the story of Kirk Douglas (“Nice guy — but a Democrat”) walking his dog through his neighborhood in Los Angeles. A car pulled up and the driver excitedly told Douglas, Heston recalled, that “You were outstanding in The Ten Commandments. You really brought the Bible to life for me.”
Douglas, according to Heston, expressed his appreciation but told the driver “You’re thinking of another actor.”
“At this point, the driver grew very upset,” Heston told the dinner, “and said ‘Well, if you’re not Burt Lancaster, then who the hell are you?’” The National Press Club ballroom convulsed in laughter.
A year before he revealed he was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, Heston addressed the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. I had a front-row seat, but others who were up close sensed something was wrong. Heston was moving slowly and shuffling. He also, for the first time anyone who had seen him could remember, used two large television screens as teleprompters. But he still had the old pizzazz, bringing to life characters he had portrayed to advise the new President George W. Bush. Jacob Ben Hur would tell him to be visionary and lead as if on a chariot and Long John Silver would advise him to be careful with who he surrounded himself with, or “You’ll walk the plank.”
And then Heston whipped out a banana from beneath the podium. “Colonel George Taylor,” he concluded, referring to his astronaut character from the celebrated Planet of the Apes film. Taylor’s advice to Bush: “Don’t monkey around.”
I would never claim to have known the man close associates referred to as “C.H.” but I did have some passing acquaintance with him and my life was enriched as a result. Oh, yes, as to who gave him my home number to call, it was Bruce Herschensohn, former KABC-TV (Los Angeles) television commentator and now professor at Pepperdine University. Heston had been friends with Herschensohn going back to the days when he narrated films that his fellow Los Angelean had made for the US Information Agency in the 1960’s. “I asked him to call you because I thought you would know about the period he was interested, or could point him in the right direction,” Herschensohn later told me. “Normally, I don’t give out peoples’ home number, but I made an exception where Charlton was concerned. I hope you don’t mind.”
As the world bids farewell to this remarkable man, let me say I certainly didn’t.
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