Will He Be NRA's Moses on the Mount?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Let's hear it for Chuck Heston, America's new Top Gun. He has just returned triumphant from the City of Brotherly Love, where one person a day is killed by gunfire--and where Heston was just elected president of the most powerful pro-gun political action group in America, the National Rifle Assn.

He is speaking by phone from his home, a highly defensible fortress atop a ridge overlooking a canyon. If push comes to shove, he can shoot marauders on their way up. He has said publicly that he would do it, using some of the 30 guns in his personal collection. He learned to shoot at age 10, when he helped put stew meat in his mother's pot in the rural woods of Michigan.

He knows, of course, that his more liberal, pro-gun-control friends in Hollywood are aghast at the thought of personal arsenals in general, and even at hypothetical discussions about private citizens shooting each other. "That is, until their own lives are threatened," Heston chuckles.

He recalls the Los Angeles riots, when "I got phone calls from some very close friends, who are very strong liberals. The conversations were all essentially the same: 'Chuck, you have guns in your house, don't you? Well, it's getting very scary down here. I wonder . . . would you loan me one of your guns?' One guy said he'd rushed out to buy a gun but couldn't get one 'because, uh, they have this waiting period.' "

Dramatic pause.

"I told him, 'Well, you voted for this waiting period.' "

OK. So how many riots do we have in a century? "That is not the point," Heston says with an angry chuckle. "The point is, waiting periods aren't effective. When you go to buy a gun, there ought to be a way to immediately check a person's criminal record, to see if he is a felon, just as any store checks a person's credit" when he or she makes a big purchase. "They don't let you out with the purchase until they know your check is good."

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Heston, 73, has dozens of theories on how to rid this country of the lawless shooters who kill more people in an average week than are killed by gunfire in Western Europe in an entire year. And doubtless he will deliver those theories on radio and TV talk shows, at lectures and in print, over the course of his NRA tenure. His granite jaw, chiseled cheeks and boombox voice have now become the official image of the NRA--which makes gun fanciers and political conservatives ecstatic.

With Heston at the helm--lending his high-caliber patriot's image and his squeaky-clean reputation, unsullied over 60 years by even a bit of printed malicious gossip--all those pro-gun-control types may find it harder to view the NRA as an evil empire of lunatic fringe militiamen who hide in the woods and sharp-shoot at sheriffs. Would Moses consent to lead a group like that?

Heston knows he is in for some heavy flak. He already has been a subject of Jay Leno and David Letterman's late-night monologues (see selections from Letterman's top 10 list, E2), and political cartoonists are dipping their pens, eager to do his Mt. Rushmore features justice. There hasn't been such an opportunity for caricature since Nixon led with his chin.

"Let them write and say what they want about me," Heston offers. "I'm used to all that. I am very proud of my lifetime record on various issues. This town, in particular, depends only on what is currently fashionable. They only do what is politically correct at the moment. They don't take risks.

"In the early 1960s, for example, civil rights activism was not yet fashionable. You would not believe the negative reaction I got from some very well-known Hollywood people I tried to interest in the civil rights movement. They said no because it wasn't the thing to do at the time."

But Heston said yes. Indeed, by all accounts, he has been an activist and a man of commitment his entire life, researching the issues he cares about and taking stands even when they aren't popular.

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At the height of his celebrity--after he had played Moses and Ben-Hur and could sit back and count his money and luxuriate in his fame--he headed the Artists' Committee that joined with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the March on Washington. He also participated in smaller, less publicized demonstrations, including one outside a restaurant in Oklahoma City that had refused to serve blacks.

Among his many off-screen roles, he served six years as head of the Screen Actors Guild, has raised money for dozens of charitable causes including the fight against breast cancer, and has championed many an underdog.

In 1957, for example, when Heston was a huge box-office draw, he considered making a thriller called "Touch of Evil."

"It was a crime story, pure and simple. I knew it would only be as good as its director." He had never met Orson Welles, whose career by that time had spiraled downward. "Welles had not made a U.S. film in 10 years, but I knew he was brilliant and in trouble. So I said I'd do the film if they'd let Welles direct. I'd be a pain in their asses if they didn't."

Welles directed. The film, in which Heston plays a Mexican narcotics investigator pitted against a corrupt sheriff (played by Welles), was a box-office disappointment at the time. But 40 years later, film buffs consider it a classic. It has just been restored and will be reissued in the fall.

In 1992, Heston held some shares of Time-Warner stock when rapper Ice-T's "Cop-Killer" CD was released. Appalled at the incendiary lyrics, Heston did his usual activist thing. He went to the Time-Warner stockholders' meeting and read those lyrics to the shareholders in his most booming, God-like voice. Many had no idea of what was on the disc and had never heard those words uttered so publicly before. Then Heston got rid of his Time-Warner stock.

He voted for Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson before making a right turn away from affirmative action, bilingual education and other so-called liberal causes. In 1996, he made appearances in 21 states on behalf of 54 candidates for federal office, all but one of them Republican.

He is an inveterate diarist and letter writer, the author of three books and dozens of missives to this newspaper. Some years back, during a drought, he wrote to columnist Jack Smith to support Smith's tongue-in-cheek idea that men stop using bathrooms to urinate, and do it instead in their gardens. Think of all the flushes that would be saved! "Nearly every morning," Heston wrote, "when I go for the paper with my dog along our ridge, we mark adjacent trees."

He says that, despite his various interests, he is first and foremost an actor. He has made close to 100 films, and he continues to work. He played a cameo role in "True Lies" and portrayed the Player King in the 1996 Kenneth Branagh film of "Hamlet." In the fall, he and his wife of 54 years, Lydia, will perform "Love Letters" on the English stage.

And whether others like it or not, he will continue to issue his ideas on gun ownership and other issues until he proves he's right--or he changes his mind.

* Charlton Heston will be profiled Saturday at 9 p.m. on "Biography" on the A&E; cable television channel.

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