Remembering Mr. Heston

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RELATED: Actor Charlton Heston dies at 84

When I first started covering the Hollywood labor beat for The Hollywood Reporter in 1981, the Screen Actors Guild was embroiled in a bitter internal political battle between SAG president Ed Asner and former SAG president Charlton Heston. An outspoken critic of the policies of another former SAG president -- then U.S. President Ronald Reagan -- Asner was my kind of guy -- a good liberal and a good union man.

I didn't agree with any of Mr. Heston's conservative politics, but it turned out that he was my kind of guy too.

Mr. Heston, who died Saturday after a long battle with Alzheimer's Disease, was a gentleman in the old-fashioned sense of the word. I must have talked to him a hundred times on the telephone and at least a dozen times on the picket line, and I always addressed him as "Mr. Heston." And in all those times, he never once said, "Call me Charlton" or "Call me Chuck," as he was known to his friends. And it was fitting, because to me, he was "Mr. Heston."

Once, while on vacation visiting friends in Valdez, Alaska, Mr. Heston tracked me down and called me up up there to give me his thoughts on one of the hot SAG topics of the day. My friend Rachel answered the phone, and when Mr. Heston told her that it was Charlton Heston calling, she nearly fainted. She was so excited to be getting a phone call -- in Valdez, Alaska -- from a real, big-time movie star, that she told all her friends about it. She even wanted her husband, my friend Joe -- who was the publisher of the town newspaper -- to put something in the paper that Charlton Heston had called Valdez, Alaska.

Mr. Heston had that kind of an effect on people.

Mr. Heston was often accused of being anti-union. I know for a fact, however, that he loved the Screen Actors Guild, and the union could always count on him to show up whenever there was a picket line -- which always drew the press -- and the resulting attention to their cause. He was also criticized for his support of so-called "Right to Work" legislation, which gave workers in right-to-work states the right not to join a union, even if a majority of their co-workers voted the union in. I personally oppose right-to-work laws because they give nonunion workers a free ride -- they get all the benefits of a union contract without having to pay any union dues. However, I respected Mr. Heston's motives, because he was principled -- he believed that no American should be forced to join a union that he or she didn't want to join.

In the 1980s, Mr. Heston also aroused the ire of union leaders in Hollywood when he and a group of conservative SAG actors -- who called themselves Actors Working for an Actors Guild -- led a movement to educate Hollywood union members to the fact that they had the right -- as upheld by the Supreme Court -- to opt out of their unions by declaring "financial core" status. In non-right-to-work states such as California, declaring financial core status gives workers in unionized industries the right to opt out of their union's politics while still requiring them to pay that portion of union dues that go directly towards collective bargaining, contract enforcement and contract administration. This seemed like a good compromise because it addressed what, to me, was Mr. Heston's valid argument against "compulsory unionism," while at the same time eliminating the "free-riders" present in right-to-work states.

Mr. Heston put his principles into action in 1991 when he declared financial core status in Actors Equity to protest the union's refusal to allow a white actor -- Jonathan Pryce -- to play the role of a Eurasian in "Miss Saigon" on Broadway. Mr. Heston, who had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, called the union's action "obscenely racist." He even flew to London to support an actor's right to play any role without regard to race.

Many years later, during an interview on CNN, the show's lead actress, Lea Salonga, was asked: "What is your favorite memory of 'Miss Saigon'?"

Without hesitating, she replied: "Charlton Heston came backstage after the opening-night performance (in London). He was really rallying for Jonathan Pryce and me to come to Broadway. So when Charlton Heston came backstage, I just had to give him the biggest hug for fighting so hard to get (us) over here. It was Moses in my dressing room! I was so in awe of him."

Mr. Heston had that kind of effect on people.

David Robb is a writer and occasional contributor to The Reporter.
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