Charlton Heston is one of the most respected and honored actors in the world. He pursued his
ambition throughout high school and then college, via an acting scholarship at Northwestern
Following Northwestern, Heston enlisted in the army for three years before
moving to New York to continue his career. He made his Broadway debut as a cast member of
Katherine Cornell’s Antony and Cleopatra, performing a number of roles during the play’s
long and successful run. His performances caught the eye of several directors in the then new
medium of television, and he became one of the first Broadway actors to achieve success on
television, playing leads in Studio One and other live dramatic programs.
He first drew
Holly-wood’s attention after playing Antony in David Brad-ley’s widely acclaimed version of
Julius Caesar. This performance convinced Cecil B. DeMille to sign him for The
Greatest Show on Earth. The film went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year, and
Heston was on his way.
A conscientious citizen, Heston takes an active part in community
and film industry affairs. He’s made numerous trips overseas on behalf of the State Department and
has visited troops in foreign countries. He was also president of the Screen Actors’ Guild for six
terms (longer than anyone else has held the office) and went on to be Chairman of the American
Film Institute. In 1978, for these and other special services, he received the Jean Hersholt
Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
This interview was conducted by Ken Masugi, Senior Fellow, and
Colleen Ryor, Ashbrook Scholar and Assistant Managing Editor of On Principle.
QUESTION: Could you address the question of how the arts
can assist us in strengthening our national character?
Shakespeare is the outstanding example of how that can be done. In all of Shakespeare’s plays, no
matter what tragic events occur, no matter what rises and falls, we return to stability in the end.
Society mends its wounds. And that’s invariably true in all the tragedies, in the comedies as
well. And certainly in the histories.
I think you see it less clearly in painting, though
there, too … the paintings up through the 19th century tended to be paintings of great events
which came to a successful conclusion, but not invariably: We see paintings of the flood, and
so forth … the destruction of the Golden Calf. But those too came out satisfactorily in the end
… the Lord sets his rainbow in the sky and says, “Never again will I cause a flood to come upon
To a lesser extent that’s true in the novel. But again, through the 19th
century, given extraordinary and undeniably great exceptions like Moby Dick, which
has a tragic ending, most great novels close with a somewhat benign view of the world, not so
when you get into Theodore Dreiser, when it begins to change. I suppose you see it more and
more in our times now, with … well, I can describe it more securely and in greater detail in film,
which obviously I’ve been more intimately involved with than 19th century novels, except as
a consumer of them.
Q: What’s your favorite 19th century
CH: I think Huckleberry Finn is one of the great American
novels and I’d go with that. Moby Dick, of course. Moby Dick is much
denser, and frankly, a lot of it is quite boring.
The big studio era is from the coming
of sound until 1950, until I came in … I came in at a crux in film, which was the end of the
studio era and the rise of filmmaking. But throughout all that period, the difference between
good and evil, and the eventual triumph of the good, the reward of the virtuous, of the heroic,
was almost always recognized. You could think of extraordinary examples to the contrary:
The Grapes of Wrath … and even into the 70s.
Dirty Harry, for
example. Clint Eastwood was not a rogue cop. He was a maverick cop, but he was a good guy.
His superiors were often forced to rebuke him or even discipline him, but we knew who were
the good guys and who were the bad guys. About the same time, Robert Redford made a good
film called Three Days of the Condor, and that was about the turning point, I think.
Certainly Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Eddie Robinson, played monstrously bad men,
but they get killed in the end. Now we see, more and more, anyone in the military, for
example, above the rank of major, is likely to be a bad man. Clergymen tend to be unreliable
and pompous figures. Seldom Jewish rabbis, less often Catholic priests, but Protestant
ministers tend to be … not really very admirable. Not necessarily evil, but silly. And wrong, of
In recent years, anyone in the government, certainly anyone in the FBI or
the CIA, or recently, in again, Clint’s film, In the Line of Fire, the main bad guy is the
chief advisor to the president. And more recently in that film Dave, at least sort of a
comedy, but the president is a bad man a terrible man.
Q: It seems that
even when we get patriotic writers like Tom Clancy, people at least in an early stage like Clint
Eastwood who did some very good movies, that support American principles, Hollywood
somehow manages to distort them. First of all, how do you see it from inside the film industry,
and second, what can Americans do to object?
CH: Well the main thing
they can do is not go to the movies. It is an odd dilemma. On the one hand, film is the art form
of the 20th century, undeniably … As Lenin said, “the most powerful tool ever invented to
influence the mind of man.” Undeniably the American art form, too. And yet more and more,
we see films made that diminish the American experience and example. And sometimes trash
I suppose Oliver Stone is the outstanding example of that … He’s a very
good film maker, but ruthlessly critical of the American scene take Natural Born Killers,
JFK … And, you see a film maker like Quentin Tarantino … Pulp Fiction is very
well made, rather flashily directed, with a lot of jump cuts and double cuts and reverse time
sequences and so on; you’re never in a certain time in the film. But all that is given; it’s still
wonderfully made. The bad guys are the good guys, really …
Now what Tarantino
will say to that is “Don’t you understand? This is a black comedy. We’re holding this up to
ridicule.” There’s no worse thing you can accuse a cool person of being than not getting a joke.
So they’ll say “Oh, yeah, right, sure … it’s a black comedy. Right.”
this brings us, of course, to the National Endowment for the Arts, and of course it’s been under
very heavy fire for some well-publicized grants that it gave. But it gives money to support
wonderful museums and art exhibits …
CH: You cut their money back, for
one thing…. I go back a long way with the NEA. Then I was appointed by President Reagan to
chair a presidential commission on the arts, to determine if it was appropriate to give federal
tax money to both these endowments. In the end we decided that there was a sufficiently
national function served, and that they should have some money.
Then I was
involved in some of the flops on the Mapplethorpe and Serrano thing, and the AIDS activist last
spring who sprinkled his blood. And that is one of the weaknesses, as I’ve said to several
chairmen of the NEA: “If you annoy a certain number of taxpayers, their representatives will
not give you any money. You must, must, must prevent these grants.”
is what they call the peer review panel, which are in fact, panels of some artists, arts activists,
people that donate money and support, arts administrators executives, directors, and sub-directors, and so on. And in effect, they are advisory on every grant in consideration. For the
council which in theory has to approve a grant has too heavy a workload. When I was on it, you
know, you’d get close to lunchtime and the chairman would say, “Well, we’re supposed to run this
film this afternoon, and it’s coming on to lunch the Chair will entertain a motion to approve these
fourteen grants” and someone’ll say, “Yeah, I move to approve …” The panelists can’t submit a
request for a grant. But they rotate on and off the panel. And their pals vote for their stuff when
they’re not on the panel, and it just keeps going that way. And they tend to be very fringe artists,
so anything before the 20th century is not worth considering. This is out of
Q: It’s the permanent staff that pushes this agenda and the only way you get
rid of them is by eliminating the agency altogether. The public is edified by great art. Does that
necessarily require a governmental mechanism to facilitate that noble end?
Well, we have certainly produced great art before we did this. In my view, there are any number of
areas of government which tax money should not be spent. I think farm subsidies are certainly at
least as hard to justify as giving some out-of-work painter a thousand dollars to do a mural. As an
artist, I understand that, and I value the creative input of the artist. The United States Marine Corps
Band takes more tax money than all the grants to symphony orchestras by the NEA, so there’s a
certain perspective there that’s understandable. These are ridiculous, foolish grants dangerously
foolish. Most of which are made precisely to irritate the Philistine.
Q: The great
French impressionist artist Degas said, “Our mission must be to discourage art.” Are the arts
doomed to bumble along in this way, to continue to deteriorate as the definition of art and the elitists
who define what good art is … try to shock the bourgeoise more and more?
Art as confrontational politics I don’t think is the function of art. Now there are artists who disagree
with me; they say that’s precisely the function of the artist. The function of art is to provide the
bread of the soul, to inspire, to elevate, to think better of the world, and ourselves.
Q: What makes you proudest to be an American?
country’s history. I don’t know who it was that said it, but it may be that the creation of the United
States is the greatest political act in the history of mankind. I agree with that. Good question. No
one’s ever asked me that before.