Charlton Heston and Image Politics

04/10/2008 10:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Despite the many obituaries that appeared since Charlton Heston's death on April 5, none has noted his significance as Hollywood's first practitioner of what I would call Image Politics.

Over the years, a handful of movie stars forged screen personalities so distinct and so widely admired that it imbued them with a sense of gravitas rare among their peers. The tough, determined screen personas of John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and later Clint Eastwood commanded respect from millions of conservatives, while the sensitive and thoughtful cinematic images forged by Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, and most recently George Clooney endeared them to liberals throughout the country.

Yet, with the exception of Eastwood, who served one term as mayor of Carmel, California, no other star linked their cinematic image to their off-screen politics as successfully and for so long a period of time without becoming an actual politician as Charlton Heston.

His roles as Moses, John the Baptist, and Ben Hur created a Biblical aura that helped legitimize him and his politics among the public. As one West Los Angeles woman remarked during a contentious community policy meeting that pitted Heston against liberal opponents in April 1979, "How could you go against what Moses says?"

What distinguished Heston from other Hollywood activists was not the focus of his politics but his ability--and the ability of others--to use his cinematic image to give greater credibility to particular causes. Far from being just another movie star, Heston emerged as an iconic figure whose Biblical roles lent him and any issue he supported a sense of morality and high purpose.

Although Heston is widely associated today with conservative causes, he began his political activism as a liberal Democrat. In May 1961, he traveled to Oklahoma City to join a march calling for integration of local restaurants. Three years of protests had yielded few positive results; however, several weeks after Heston's appearance, the targeted restaurants opened their doors to African-American customers.

The actor's commitment to civil rights was not a one-shot deal. In the summer of 1963, after helping integrate studio craft unions, Heston agreed to chair the Hollywood contingent that joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington. "I suppose I was elected chairman," the star of The Ten Commandments (1956) told a reporter, "because I'd gotten all those folks through the Red Sea." He was only partially correct. Harry Belafonte, who organized Hollywood celebrities at King's bequest, told me that he asked Heston to chair the delegation because his cinematic image made him one of the few stars who "could appeal to middle America." At a time when a Gallup poll reported that two-thirds of all Americans disapproved of the march, Belafonte reasoned that heartland citizens who might otherwise ignore the demonstration "would have to take a second look if Heston was involved."

By 1966, as the national debate over Vietnam War intensified, Heston found himself on the same side of the contentious political divide as Fonda--only it was Henry rather than Jane. A trip to visit the troops that January persuaded him that his earlier apprehensions and misgivings were wrong. In 1972, convinced that the Democratic Party abandoned the legacy of FDR, JFK, and LBJ by embracing the "radical" agenda of presidential nominee Senator George McGovern, Heston joined Democrats for Nixon and actively campaigned on behalf of the President.

Republicans warmly welcomed the 6' 3" star into their ranks. For them, as for most Americans, he remained Moses--not just any Moses, but conservative director Cecil B. DeMille's muscular Cold War hero who fought the enemies of democracy off the screen in the same way his screen character fought the Evil Egyptian Empire on the screen. In 1980, when his friend Ronald Reagan ran for President, Heston was one of the first stars that conservatives called on to help raise money and win public support for the candidate and his causes. Indeed, Heston's public image was so powerful that leaders from both parties--Democrats in the 1960s and Republicans in the 1980s--asked him to run for Senate in California.

As Heston's screen career wound down, he again drew on his film persona to denounce what he saw as the growing red tide in America and the world. During the early 1980s, he attracted national attention by debating Central American policy with Ed Asner and nuclear policy with Paul Newman--debates the press referred to as "Star Wars" and as "Moses versus Butch Cassidy."

In the late 1990s, he emerged as the most visible spokesperson for the National Rifle Association and its efforts to limit gun-control legislation. Heston's heroic image greatly enhanced the NRA's respectability. In the two years following his election as president in 1998, NRA membership swelled from 2.9 to nearly 5 million. Indeed, pundits credit gun owners in West Virginia--where Democrats outnumbered Republicans two to one--with tipping the state and therefore the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush.

Rarely has image politics had such a profound impact on national life. Even in death, Heston is remembered for his screen roles. As a mourning fan who loved his films and politics recently wrote, "Moses finally entered the Promised Land."