Heston shows off Hollywood's big guns

Exhibit: NRA president displays firearms made famous on film.

March 16, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

FAIRFAX, Va. - It takes something special to turn Tom Selleck into just another guy in the room and a bunch of Inside-the-Beltway hot shots into boys on the playground.

What it takes is Charlton Heston and a glass case full of famous guns from Hollywood films and TV.

Now 77, Heston doesn't project a man-of-action image anymore. And sometimes, you have to lean close to hear what he's saying. But make no mistake, he still parts a crowd the way his Moses parted the Red Sea.

Heston was in Northern Virginia this week to open the National Firearms Museum's exhibit, "Real Guns of Reel Heroes." Selleck attended as the largest contributor to the display.

The star of Ben-Hur and Planet of the Apes is probably America's most famous and unrepentant gunslinger; a man who held a Colonial flintlock over his head at a National Rifle Association event and dared then-presidental candidate Al Gore to take it "from my cold, dead hands."

The two-time Oscar winner says the exhibit is an important reminder of America's past. "Guns have played and continued to play an important role in our history. They can't be thought of as just weapons. Many of the old ones are works of art by skilled craftsmen. That is why most major museums have numerous firearms on display."

Selleck says even people who favor gun control can find a Hollywood gun to like.

"In many cases, more often than not, they're the instrument of an avenging angel, so they represent a force that's fairly positive," he says. "No matter where you stand on guns, on issues, Paul Newman's gun is there, Robert Redford's knife is there and people want to see that stuff."

The exhibit, open through the end of the year, is like taking a walk through movie history: Guns used by big-screen cowboys John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood. Little-screen cowboys like Chuck (The Rifleman) Connors, Steve (Wanted Dead or Alive) McQueen and Gene (Bat Masterson) Barry. Morgan Freeman's Enfield rifle from the movie Glory is on display, as is Frank Sinatra's Walther P-38 pistol from The Manchurian Candidate.

The harpoon gun from Jaws is right near Samuel Jackson's Pulp Fiction pistol. Curators haven't forgotten the far-out, either, with the proton gun from Ghostbusters and Luke Skywalker's light saber.

But Heston found an oversight right away - nothing from his 1965 movie, Major Dundee.

"Where's my cavalry pistol?" joked Heston as he entered the dark-paneled display room and strode toward a display case. He quickly spied a movie poster and prop gun used in his 1968 film, Planet of the Apes.

"I loved that movie," he says with conviction, bending down for a closer look.

Walking near Heston were about a half-dozen men in dark suits, who Heston says each gave $1 million to help pay for the exhibit.

"I'm amazed by how many people were willing to give significant sums of money for this," he says.

Heston continues to get work in Hollywood, on screen and doing voice-overs. But he spends a lot of time on causes near and dear to his heart. As the three-term president of the NRA, he's crisscrossing the country, scolding people he feels are trying to take away the right to keep guns, and campaigning for politicians who pledge allegiance to the Second Amendment.

Before the festivities, Heston and Selleck sat down in a quiet corner of the museum library to talk movies, history and roles.

"I made a small Western that's my favorite, it's my best, called Will Penny," says Heston of the 1968 film, in which he starred opposite Joan Hackett. "Every cowboy I talked to said that's what it was like. There's not a lot of shooting until you have to finish off the bad guys."

He plays an aging, illiterate cowboy who falls in love and fights Donald Pleasance and his sons to the death. In the end, the Heston character decides he's not the settling-down type and he departs, leaving Hackett, her young boy and tons of female viewers crying.

"I did, too," Selleck volunteers. "Will Penny would be in my Top 10 list. Shane, The Searchers, Rio Grande, Red River, The Magnificent Seven," he continues, counting them off on his fingers. "It's very hard to make a list, and my list always changes, but those always seem to be on it."

As an actor, Heston says he enjoys digging into the nuances of being a bad guy.

"I played a lot of bad guys and I played a couple of angry guys. Will Penny was an angry guy," says Heston. "But to reduce it to its lowest common denominator, the best of these parts are Shakespeare parts - MacBeth, Othello, Brutus. They're marvelous parts. They tend to be interesting fellows."

Selleck agrees. "I like bad guys. I keep looking for those roles, but I haven't played a lot of them. To make them work, you must find a way in your own mind to give that person redeeming qualities. ... There's no reason bad guys can't have charm. For the ax murderer, you have to understand why the girl hitchhiker got in the car to begin with."

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