- The Washington Times - Monday, August 19, 2002

I am shy around movie stars. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth, and all I can think to say is I loved you in So it is with Charlton Heston.
In his presence I seem to nod idiotically, like one of these doggies in the back of rear windows of cars. He always tries to make my agonies a bit smaller since he is such a gentleman.
Acting is a serious and silly business. Grown people run around pretending the clothes they're wearing and the words they're saying are their own pretending that they're not pretending. That stuff can really make you feel silly if you're not careful, and 1,000 times more silly if you're wearing a toga or staring off-stage at a burning bush that isn't there. But acting also has awesome power to mirror our reality and give shape to our best and most noble pictures of ourselves.
When I was a kid and yearning to act, there were scads of actors whose work I admired and tried to emulate: Tracy and Laughton, Paul Muni, Irene Dunne and Jimmy Cagney. There were also Errol Flynn and John Wayne and Charlton Heston.
I thought, being cocky, that I could be something like Tracy, something like Cagney. I knew I would never be as sexy as Flynn, as heroic as Wayne or as mythic as Heston. I never thought for a minute I could be like Heston.
Some performances could not possibly be acted by anyone other than who played them. We hear stories about Reagan being cast in Casablanca, but we know in our gut it just couldn't be right. God gave Bogart the role. God gave John Wayne Red River. And God cast Charlton Heston as Moses. And Ben Hur.
Millions of Jewish kids grew up with the confusion that: (a) Charlton Heston WAS Moses, (b) Charlton Heston was NOT Jewish. I believe that films like Ben Hur were conceived because Heston was there to make them. Ben Hur starring Robert Montgomery. (Please) Tyrone Power as Moses (I don't think so). Heston is inescapable and necessary. There would be no chariot race worth its salt without him. I would never watch Heston on TV because he was too big. He was almost too big for the 20th Century, let alone TV. But, in the darkened mysterioso of the movie theater, Charlton Heston was "just right."
As a kid, he took me far, far away, to places few actors could go. The only other American actor so comfortable outside of this era was Wayne, and Heston could time travel farther. Both held the magical alchemy that made me forget the commonplace of here and now. John Wayne allowed us into our American past. Heston because of his perfectly male face, the depth of his voice, and the measured, almost antique, rhythm of his speech, the oddly innocent commitment which allowed him to dive without looking into the role took me Before the Common Era, as they say.
Somehow, he was able to cut the strings that connect us to our current lives and perfectly inhabit our imagined past and future. I could never have gotten to Ancient Rome without him, nor Ape City.
Is so and so a great actor? It's a stupid question. The actor either gets you to where you have to go, or not. Heston did; priceless. He could portray greatness which is no longer an artistic goal satisfying grandeur, and personify a heroic vision of ourselves.
Is this out of favor? Out of step? Antique? Yes. Antique as in gorgeous, incredibly valuable, and not produced anymore.
As someone who has seen Ben Hur 2 million times, I am totally grateful.
Self-consciousness, the anticipation of being silly, often is the spoiler for many actors. Charlton Heston had no such problem. He would dive into the story with measured abandon and make me believe. God, it was fun watching him.
It has become fashionable to characterize his politics, almost as if they were separate from him. People are either defensive or patronizing (if not contemptuous). I can only say I wish all the liberals and all the conservatives I knew had the class and forbearance he has. Would I be as patient or serene when so many had showed me such contempt, or tried to make me feel stupid or small? I doubt it. This is dignity, simply and completely a much more important quality than political passion at the end of the day, and far more lacking.
Charlton Heston is going through a terrible thing, but I confess that there is a part of my heart where I am grateful for the opportunity to let him know what he's meant to me.

Richard Dreyfuss is an award-winning actor. Distributed by UPI.

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