Hollywood Flashback: Charlton Heston's "Cold Dead Hands" Speech Fired Up the NRA in 2000

ONE TIME USE ONLY-Charlton Heston holds up a musket -May 20, 2000- AP photo-H 2019
AP Photo/Ric Feld, File

Over two decades before the organization's current financial scandal, the actor made a pronouncement at the group's 129th convention as he held up a Revolutionary War-era flintlock rifle, declaring he'd refuse to allow the government to confiscate the gun.

The National Rifle Association, which has been in the news with the resignation of Oliver North as president, elevated Charlton Heston to that largely ceremonial position in 1998. (The real power is held by the CEO, who during Heston's tenure — and today — is Wayne LaPierre.)

If there was one defining moment of Heston's presidency, it came on May 20, 2000, when at the NRA's 129th convention the actor held up a Revolutionary War-era flintlock rifle and announced that if the government (and "especially you, Mr. Gore," meaning Al Gore, who was running for president) wanted to confiscate the gun, they'd have to take it from his "cold, dead hands."

The video was played endlessly on the news. But Heston, who'd won an Oscar for 1959's Ben-Hur, wasn't always such a conservative. Until 1972, he was a registered Democrat. At the height of his early '60s fame, he was a prominent supporter of the civil rights movement. He flew to Oklahoma City in May 1961, when there was a real danger of violence against black students who were attempting to integrate the Anna Maude Cafeteria, and marched holding a sign that said, "All Men Are Created Equal."

Says historian Philip Dray: "Heston was sincerely committed to Martin Luther King's movement," "His presence at an event would make a huge difference. To have celebrities come to less well-known places startled people; it helped make a demonstration a news story."

In August 1963, when he attended the March on Washington where King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, Heston appeared on a TV roundtable with Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin and Marlon Brando and said, "Up until very recently, like most Americans, I expressed my support of civil rights largely by talking about it at cocktail parties, I'm afraid. But again, like many Americans this summer, I could no longer pay only lip service to a cause that was so urgently right, and in a time that is so urgently now."

In 2002, Heston revealed he had Alzheimer's disease. He died in 2008 at 84.

This story first appeared in the May 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.