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Fire Power

Conservative actor Charlton Heston has a long history of activism. Now, the screen icon hopes to help lead the NRA to a better place.

May 21, 1997|CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once again, it's Charlton Heston into the breach.

His newest political role as first vice president of the beleaguered National Rifle Assn. is merely his latest act in an on- and off-screen career of imparting a heroic, broad-shouldered presence to movies and real-life issues.

In four decades, the 72-year-old Heston has soldiered in the early civil rights movement, campaigned against the nuclear freeze, raised money to fight breast cancer and formed his own political action committee to fund conservative candidates.

In fact, it's difficult to write a story about Heston's sometimes-dramatic entries into these causes without using the word "Moses" and invoking the memory of the actor leading his forces out of the wilderness in "The Ten Commandments."

Even those who disagree with Heston use that image. Explaining why Heston was able to sweep onto the board of the NRA and best Neal Knox, the incumbent first vice president, Knox's wife, Jay, said, "Mr. Knox feels very flattered that they had to bring in Moses, the voice of God, and Ben Hur to knock him out of his chair."

Heston is still eager to oblige that notion, which he described in his recent autobiography as "my expanded persona, riding the tiger."

"It's an amazing thing--my whole career I seem to find myself pushed into these things, or, at the very least, invited in," he said in a phone conversation a day before he began several weeks of traveling. His first stop was in service of his day job--he went to the Cannes Film Festival. Then he went on to Washington, D.C., for political kibitzing and to New York for a dinner with Prince Andrew honoring the American Air Museum in Britain.

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You could call him the predecessor of the contingent of fur-denouncing, old-growth-redwood-tree-defending celebrities. It's just that most activist actors today are liberal, and Heston is not. But even if you have trouble reconciling an image of a man who led a group of artists in the 1963 march on Washington with the one who now stands side by side with gun lobbyists, you can't deny one thing: He's consistently active in something.

He ticks off some of his civic accomplishments--six terms on the board of the Screen Actors Guild (and a former presidency), civil rights marches ("in '61, long before it became fashionable") and co-chairman of President Reagan's 1981 task force examining the fiscal worthiness of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Heston was defending the existence of the NEA during one of the earliest right-wing sieges. (He's gotten harsher. In his recent autobiography, he denounces the organization's financial wastefulness.)

He's long been one of the NRA's more visible members, but this is his first time taking on a position of leadership in the organization, which has suffered a public relations nightmare for its hard-line stand against gun control and suggestions that it is linked to extremist groups.

Earlier this month at a convention in Seattle, NRA members swept Heston onto the national board, where he narrowly beat out incumbent Knox.

"Well, I could be useful, as I was with the National Endowment for the Arts," Heston explained, his voice full of the stateliness he employs whether he is addressing an audience of a thousand or a lone reporter. "And Dr. King was kind enough to say I was useful with civil rights. I have a public face. I know how to do interviews. In the case of the NRA, one of the most useful things I can do is have access to just about any office on the Hill. I've done this for years for many causes."

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Heston has made his activism into a systematic part of his life. Consider: He has a Washington-based political consultant, Tony Makris, who briefs him on issues. Through his ArenaPAC, which permits him to contribute his time and services more freely than an individual under federal law, he made appearances in 21 states on behalf of 54 candidates for federal offices--all but one of them Republican--in the 1996 election.

In Heston's 1995 autobiography, "In the Arena" (Simon & Schuster), he describes how he felt after participating in a small and peaceful demonstration in the early '60s in front of several Oklahoma City restaurants that refused to serve blacks: "I suppose this small civil rights activism, before it got popular, was a significant milestone for me. A certain Scots contrariness and a tendency to shoot my mouth off were to involve me in a good many more public-sector issues."

Said Makris: "I think Charlton Heston is a man motivated by commitment. He's married to the same woman, Lydia, for 53 years--his first and only love, the first woman he ever had a date with."

Makris met Heston in 1982 when the actor was campaigning against the liberal nuclear freeze movement. Makris, a former deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Defense under Caspar Weinberger, was involved in a pro-Defense organization. Makris, who envied the Democrats' ability to corral liberal celebrities, thought Heston could give the GOP the same kind of shot in the arm.

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