His sonorous bass voice, aristocratic mien, and almost photographic memory have served Charlton Heston well in art and in life.
His splendid portrayals of spectacular men in film have moved the hearts of millions -- maybe hundreds of millions -- while stimulating their aesthetic sensibilities.
But he perceives under way a cracking of the moral and cultural foundation of America, and has therefore moved in recent years to shore up what he sees as the greatest ddemocracy the world has eve known.
"I feel very strongly that there's been a cultural failure in the country," he says in an interview. "America has begun to unravel in a disturbing way.
"It seems to be clotting up into separate Gypsy camps"--with one ethnic, racial, or gender group all too often pugnaciously pitted against another, says Heston, who has starred in over 70 films and nearly as many theater productions and who won an Academy Award for best actor in Ben Hur. He is best known for his roles in other epics like The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and El Cid.
He's been concerned about human rights and cultural integrity in America for decades. An Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat at the time, he was an activist in the early civil rights movement.
Much more recently, in 1997, he was elected to the of the National Rifle Association and was appointed its first vice president.
He has said before a gathering of journalists, in fact, that "the right to keep and bear arms is ... America's first freedom--the one right that protects all the others ]including press freedom]. ... You can't defend yourself [against would-be dictators] with a rolled-up newspaper!"
The 74-year-old Heston, who has been elected president of the Screen Actors Guild six times (more than anyone else) and who served as the first chairman of the American Film Institute, grew up hunting, shooting, and fishing in the north woods of Michigan, where he learned his respect for guns from his father, Russell Carter.
Heston was born John Charlton Carter. He was a shy, aloof boy--and this posed a major challenge in his life.
He dealt with his shyness by retreating within himself and pretending to be characters in the abundant stories his parents read to him.
Young Charlton, as his mother, whose maiden name was Lilla Charlton, always called him, went to school in a one-room backwoods schoolhouse. A lone teacher taught 13 children, and Charlton was the only one in his grade--another thing that enhanced his shyness.
When he was 10, he was scalded by calamity: His parents divorced. "This was then and still remains the most traumatic experience of my life, including World War II," Heston says. "I couldn't even comprehend this idea [of divorce], let alone accept it. My memory is that I cried for two days, but this can't be true.
"In my heart of hearts, I was convinced that it was somehow, shamefully, all my fault."
His mother remarried a year later and settled in Wilmette, Illinois, on the outskirts of Chicago. …