It is difficult to get a handle on the real Charlton Heston.
On the one hand, he is the towering actor who starred in some of the biggest films of the 20th century — The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, Planet of the Apes. On the other hand, Heston has become one of the country's most polarizing figures as the fiery spokesman for the National Rifle Association.
In August, Heston, now 79, announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. He invited Peter Jennings to his home for what may be his last opportunity to go on record in an in-depth interview. Jennings visited Heston in his California home to survey his extraordinary life and career and to learn whether today he considered himself an actor or activist.
In his small, private study in the home he has lived in for more than 40 years, he is surrounded by memories of an actor's life.
"This is the staff of Moses. This is what I used to part the Red Sea with," Heston said.
There are guns in Heston's study as well — including two pistols he particularly treasures. Heston said, "These are two pistols that belonged to Thomas Jefferson … and now I have them. I wonder what Mr. Jefferson would think of that?"
Heston acknowledges that when he talks about guns, his strident leadership of the NRA often leaps to the foreground in people's minds — perhaps supplanting the image of the legendary film actor.
"It might, it — I can think of other things I've — I've done and said that are more important, you know."
Larger Than Life
Heston says that he is first an actor. He fell in love with acting during a lonely childhood in rural Michigan. Acting was his refuge.
Time and again, directors cast Heston in the roles of larger-than-life characters. "Larger than life, but they were alive. Larger than the rest of us, is the proper way to put it," Heston said.
"You cannot imagine what it's like to hear a crowd of thousands and sometimes it is thousands saying, 'Mossa, Mossa, Mossa.' It's stunning. It really is stunning," Heston said, recalling the reaction of the Egyptian extras in The Ten Commandments. Most of them had never seen a movie and they really believed he was Moses.
Heston gets something of that same reaction when he speaks at an NRA convention. In the movies, or on the political stage, Heston loves the power that he has with the crowd. And his abilities as an actor have served his political goals.
Heston has helped turn the NRA into one of the most powerful political organizations in the country. NRA membership has more than doubled since Heston became president of the group in 1998.
Heston said he became involved with the group because he grew up in hunting country and was exposed to firearms as a boy. "It was something I was comfortable with and something that, that when it became at risk, when there were people, who were opposed to it, I thought well, wait a minute. I don't believe that … I believe those guys are wrong. They're absolutely wrong," Heston said.
Heston's role at the NRA has made him a particularly divisive figure in American politics.
Heston has some second thoughts about belittling President Clinton at an NRA rally in which he said, "Mr. Clinton, sir … America doesn't trust you with our 21-year-old daughters, and we sure lord don't trust you with our guns!" He also says he regrets calling Clinton a liar.
"Probably that was unkind of me," Heston said, "You shouldn't, you shouldn't call people names like that."
So how should Heston be remembered? Perhaps, for him, actor and activist are the same thing.
When he stands up at an NRA Convention holding a rifle in his hand, he acknowledges that the gesture is not wholly dissimilar from the gesture he made as Moses in the Ten Commandments.
"They call it acting. I know when I stand and say, 'from my cold dead hands,' I know that I'm not really doing that. I'm, I'm acting," he said.
Heston and Reagan — Parallel Lives
Heston wrote in his autobiography, In the Arena, that all good politics is — in part — performance, and he often cites Ronald Reagan.
In fact, Heston and Reagan have led remarkably parallel careers. Both were actors, both were heads of unions, both moved from one end of the political spectrum to the other — beginning as liberal Democrats and becoming conservative Republicans. Both men have had decades-long marriages. And, finally, both were diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
Heston and his wife, Lydia, met when they were both studying acting at Northwestern University in Chicago. After a lifetime together in Hollywood, they are confronting his Alzheimer's together.
"I was appalled. I was stunned. I never … it never occurred to me that there was anything wrong," Lydia Heston said, describing her reaction to her husband's Alzheimer's diagnosis.
Lydia Heston said her husband is dealing with the diagnosis very well. "He's terribly strong and I believe he has a lot of time left. I have to believe that."
Family has always been important to Heston. He traveled the world making films and he usually took Lydia and their children, Fraser and Holly, with him.
Heston says the most important decision he ever made was to marry Lydia.
"I couldn't be me without her. I'll tell you that," Heston said, "I couldn't begin to be me without her."
Lydia Heston said the public doesn't see an important aspect of her husband's personality. "I would say how kind and gentle he is. That's not supposed to be part of his — his personality. But it is there," she said.
Lydia Heston did not know that her husband was going to become leader of the NRA, and she wasn't initially happy about it. "I came into the kitchen and there was the radio playing and I heard the name Charlton Heston. I didn't hear what it was about. But I knew. I thought 'there goes my life,'" she said.
She said she knew Charlton would take the commitment seriously. "I knew instantly.… and I realized that it was something that was important to him. And that he felt a great deal about … And I, I really don't resent it so much anymore."
Heston does much less for the NRA these days. Traveling is a strain. Last month he did manage to go to Oklahoma City where he was honored with a life-size statue of him at the Cowboy Museum. Heston was very pleased that his statue would stand near one of Ronald Reagan.
They say that Alzheimer's is toughest, not for the sufferers, but for those around them.
You can see the signs, of course. He forgets things. He repeats things. Slowly, he is changing. He decided to make a very public announcement about his condition because he never wanted to be in the position that he couldn't say goodbye.
The Hestons said almost immediately after Charlton made his announcement, Nancy Reagan, who has been caring for Ronald Reagan, called them. Lydia said, "She didn't make any attempt to gloss over it or pretend that it was less than it was. But she did say that any time I wanted to talk to her, that I could call her or go and see her. And I was deeply deeply moved by that."
Ronald Reagan announced his Alzheimer's diagnosis in November 1994, and Nancy Reagan has described the experience of caring for him as a particularly lonely one. Lydia Heston said, "I asked her, I said, 'Does he know you,'" Heston said, "And she said, 'no.' And there was a lot in that 'no.'"
As determined as he is to fight his illness, Charlton Heston said he realizes it is not going to go away. He said, "You have to take it as it comes. Do the best with your life you can. And what can't be cured, must be endured as somebody said."