Stay in the Damned Chariot: Life Lessons from Charlton Heston
Years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting the actor Charlton Heston. Charlton Heston was a screen legend, but he was also well known for his activism both early and later in his career before his life was cruelly cut short by Alzheimer’s disease.
Heston got his start in the "Golden Age" of Hollywood. This was circa the late 1940s and 1950s. From the '50s on Heston jumped from one iconic role to another. Naming a few in the 1950s, there was Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. In the 1960s, Planet of the Apes and in the 1970s came Soylent Green and Midway, all classic films.
Along the way, Heston became a figure of controversy as one of the few celebrities who took a stand with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr during the civil rights movement. Time has rewarded his contributions and noted them as courageous. In his later life, Heston was again a figure of controversy when he became president of the National Rifle Association and was a fervent advocate of the 2nd Amendment rights. Heston never really conformed to traditional political lines and was known to endorse and campaign for both Republican and Democrat political candidates.
I met him in the year 2000. I was just entering my teens. I had been raised watching the films of yesteryear, and Ben-Hur and The Buccaneer ranked among my favorites. At that time Heston was promoting a book he had written titled The Courage to be Free, which described standing up for one's beliefs in the face of adversity. Heston was speaking at the Richard Nixon library in Southern California.
The event was well publicized, it was a packed house with hundreds in attendance. It is comical looking back, because I realized that I was the only kid at the event and no one else under the age of 45 was there. As we prepared to enter the auditorium, Heston walked past the crowd with a few assistants and security. As he approached where I stood he turned and stopped, he looked in my direction, smiled and greeted me while extending his hand. I was shocked and almost speechless, but I managed to say hello and shake his hand. He then said farewell and continued on, not speaking to anyone else.
A few minutes later in the crowded auditorium, Heston came on stage. I knew he had a condition called Genu valgum, which is commonly called "knock-knee”, but he had learned to make allowances for it and it was scarcely even noticeable. What followed was a fun and charming speech that covered portions of his new book, stories from his past, and commentary on the current political landscape. The part of his remarks centered on his role as Ben-Hur. He told stories about the movie set, the props they had used, and how he filmed particular scenes. One portion of his remarks has really stuck with me through the years. It came near the end and Heston used it to circle back around to the original theme of his talk. He was speaking about the famous chariot race in Ben-Hur. He described the difficulty in filming it and the training he had to go through to be able to accomplish it. He humorously said the best piece of advice he received while filming was how to succeed in the race scene. It was from his trainer who told him, "Just stay in the damn chariot!"
After he finished his remarks, my parents picked up the book for me and we waited in line. As we all waited, Heston came walking through the breezeway, once more flanked by his security and attendants. He passed me and he again stopped, and walked over to me and shook my hand, thanking me for coming before continuing on his way. I could see how other people were slightly jealous that he had only stopped to say hello to me, and I was totally stunned that I had been greeted by my idol not once but twice! The line began moving and we slowly snaked our way around the corridor. I approached the table and he took my book and signed it, looking up he smiled and humorously said: "We have to stop meeting!" I laughed as he yet again shook my hand. He was gracious enough to spare a moment while I told him how much I loved him in The Buccaneer.
We then moved on from the table and left.
I like to think after all these years that he went out of his way to say hello to me three times because it charmed him to see such a young fan in attendance, especially one so starstruck, in an age when few children watched old films or even knew the names of the stars. During my time as a journalist, I have met and interviewed many celebrities, but Heston was the one who stands out to me. It is not often that a celebrity is what he portrays on screen, and it seems that every day we hear of a new celebrity who was a monster hiding in plain sight. Yet with Heston, he really was the man on screen -- kind, gracious, and heroic. His characters always stood for what was right and good, and he too followed this, whether it was staying faithful to his wife for 64 years (we all know what a record that is in Hollywood) or walking arm in arm with civil rights activists and not caring if it destroyed his film career. Charlton Heston was truly larger than life.
As the years have passed, something Heston said during the lecture has always stayed with me. The foundation for his remarks during the lecture was, "Just stay in the damn chariot" and while it was a humorous anecdote, he explained that life can be hard and sometimes our beliefs may not be popular, but when things do get rough and rocky we need to remember to "Just stay in the damn chariot." I have always remembered that as I have grown older as I have passed through many a hard time. My father left us, my mother suffered health issues and at times I have been nearly broke. All this while finishing graduate school, writing and running my own consulting business; it has been excruciating at times. But the advice Heston gave all those years ago has stuck with me, the harder life gets, the more your own personal "Masala" whips you and tries to slow you down. You just have to remember that good things are coming if you "Just stay in the damn chariot" and you will eventually get where you are meant to be.
Byron Lafayette is an entertainment journalist and author, who writes on the film industry for Fansided and serves as Editor in chief for Viralhare.com.