When I heard that Charlton Heston had died, I called my younger brother. We talked for several animated minutes about the brawny action star with whom we’d grown up—the jut-jawed monolith who survived an earthquake, single-handedly stood down a planet of apes, and slaughtered mutants by the bushel in The Omega Man. By the time I hung up, we were both bellowing, “Soylent Green is people!” What we didn’t talk about, though, was Heston’s real-life role as a conservative cultural warrior, his presidency of the NRA, or anything remotely having to do with his politics. Did we do ol’ Chuck a disservice? Or did we focus on what really mattered about the man?
One of the advantages of stardom, of course, is that it gives you an opportunity to publicly take up worthy causes, from the right to bear arms to opposition to Iraq, Vietnam, or whatever war we happen to be waging. This is certainly an actor’s right as a citizen: Artists are just as entitled as anyone to shoot off their mouths. There are more than a few cynics, though, who think that Hollywood should mind its own business and stick to the script. Whenever celebrities choose to brand themselves as conservative or liberal activists, they invariably alienate some of their fans, and become the subject of ridicule by the other side. (Barbra Streisand, Sean Penn, Jane Fonda, Tim Robbins, and Susan Sarandon all come to mind.) Whatever these actors’ pet causes, there’s something just a little off-putting about being lectured to by people who live in a world of make-believe. Spencer Tracy probably said it best: Actors who get involved in politics should remember what happened to John Wilkes Booth. -Thomas Vinciguerra