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Charlton Heston, Union Hero
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Of all the roles played by the late actor Charlton Heston, none now seems more unlikely than his real-life role as a union official.

As was noted in the stories marking his death on April 5, Heston in his later years became extremely conservative - even anti-union. But during his years as president of the Screen Actors Guild, from 1965 to 1971, and as a lesser officer for five years before that, Heston was one of Hollywood's most active supporters of a wide variety of liberal causes.

He had been like that throughout his early screen career. Heston was among but a handful of film stars who spoke out in the 1950s and 60s against racism and for the civil rights and labor movements, for example, and among the few who voiced strong opposition to the Vietnam War.

That was not role-playing. Charlton Heston the liberal was the real thing. I discovered that at a California AFL-CIO convention I was covering in 1966 as the San Francisco Chronicle's labor correspondent.

At first I couldn't quite believe it. There he was, a hugely-paid movie hero, eagerly espousing the virtues of unionism. I was hardly surprised to see him signing autographs for the giggling teen-age daughters of delegates and chatting urbanely at cocktail parties with the wives of delegates who hung on his every word. But I certainly was surprised to see him on the convention floor as delegate Chuck Heston, the obviously active and committed president of a union.

It seemed natural to Heston, the recently elected, unpaid president of the Screen Actors Guild. He acknowledged that he didn't need a union to protect his own interests. But most of his fellow actors, Heston stressed to me again and again in an interview, did need a union -- desperately.

He called film work "one of the most poorly recompensed and insecure jobs in America." The average actor, Heston noted, earned well under $3,000 a year.

"I know this will sound presumptuous," he added, "but like any other actor who is a success - makes a living at it, that is - I consider myself a very lucky man. I have to pay it back some way."

His way was to take on his new real-life role as the Screen Actors' president.

Like any union president, he considered his own to be "one of the best unions in the country." Heston described it as "a sober, responsible organization which scales its demands in a belief that employers must stay prosperous to keep employees prosperous, but which will not countenance exploitation of an actor's creativity."

Unions generally, he said, "are one of the most positive elements of American society. Their growth has paralleled the growth of America."

Not many men in his lofty income bracket would have said that - not without a script in front of them, anyway.

So, though we certainly should not forget Charlton Heston's later roles as the rifle-brandishing, gun-loving president of the National Rifle Association and advocate for the notoriously anti-union National Right-to-Work Committee and other right-wing stalwarts, we should not forget that earlier he was a forceful, sincere and effective advocate for some very worthy causes.

Copyright (c) 2008 Dick Meister