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."