The phone rang.
“Charlton Heston died.”
“Well, what do you think?”
I hadn’t realized that my feelings for Charlton Heston were complex. I didn’t even know that I had feelings about all this. Heston was one of those dependable melodramatic actors, blessed with a wonderful and often ridiculous voice that opened the floodgates for the pleasantly overbearing masculinity one now sees in Harrison Ford, William Shatner, and Dennis Quaid. Even before he turned full-fledged conservative, he had a strange libertarian-minded approach to angst which provided an undeniable heft to the denouements of Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes. Of his film roles in the past few decades, only John Carpenter really knew what to do with him, casting him as a self-serving book publisher in his underrated film, In the Mouth of Madness. But his tedious turn as Jason Colby and his embarrassing roles in third-rate literary adaptations had made even Earthquake and Airport 1975 look like 1970s Hollywood New Wave classics.
There was also the matter of his involvement with the NRA, his ridiculous condemnation of “Cop Killer,” his stumping for numerous Republican presidents of questionable distinction — in short, his 180 degree turn from the days when he marched in support of civil rights and used his influence to assert that he would only appear in Touch of Evil if Orson Welles directed, thus giving Welles a comeback opportunity.
“Okay. Let’s say there’s a parallel universe in which some nutjob shot Charlton Heston around 1975 — let’s give him Airport 1975; I can’t imagine a world without the Airport movies — and John Lennon lived on,” I said.
“No. Really. You asked. I mean, imagine if John Lennon had not been assassinated by Mark David Chapman in 1980. He might very well have gone the Sting or Phil Collins route. All the iconoclasm we now know Lennon for would have been overshadowed by music even sappier than Paul McCartney. All the protesting that he and Yoko did might have been forgotten. He might have embarrassed himself by campaigning for Michael Dukakis. Or recording some schlocky duet with Michael Jackson. Or going conservative.”
“And to get all Man in the High Castle on you, Charlton Heston would be known even more as one of the great American leading men. An actor just on the verge of a comeback, but reduced to appearing in disaster movies. Possibly a subversive. Cultural historians would have recast him as a figure who would have spoken out against the guns that this hypothetical assassin used to kill him. All the bad things that he did during the last three decades would have been wiped from the cultural fabric. There would be TV movies and A&E biographies every few years. The Ten Commandments would be played four times a year on television instead of every Easter.”
“Yes! And with John Lennon still living in this parallel universe, he’d be the one we’d all be going after. He’d be the one Michael Moore would confront at the end of Bowling for Columbine. He’d be the one Homer Simpson would be spoofing.”
“So you’re saying that you would go back in time and kill Charlton Heston in 1975.”
“Not at all. I’m saying that when we reconsider a person’s life, they’re known more for the mistakes they make in their final years than their early year accomplishments. I really don’t like Heston after 1975. But I don’t mind the stuff that came before. And I’d say that, by comparison, Lennon got off pretty easy from a cultural posterity standpoint. Heston had three additional decades to embarrass himself.”
“You’re a sick man.”
“Well, do you have a better way to take this all in? I mean, you have to give him Planet of the Apes and Touch of Evil. You have to give him watching Woodstock in The Omega Man.”
“Just wait until Schwarzenegger dies. I suspect I’ll have an even crazier theory.”