“Just Stay in the Damn Chariot!”: Lessons from Meeting Charlton Heston

Many years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting the iconic actor Charlton Heston. The occasion impacted my life, and after re-watching the film Ben-Hur, I thought I would write my experience in case anyone found the lesson and story interesting.

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. Most actors from the Golden Age fell from fame in the late 1950s; Heston however, did not. In fact, he became even more famous.  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, Midway, and The Omega Man, all classic films.

Along the way, Charlton Heston became a figure of controversy at the time when he took a stand with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr during the Civil Rights movement and marched with him. Heston knew it was an unpopular choice and indeed he was criticized for his stand. However, 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 Second Amendment Rights. While many politicians tried to claim Heston for one party or another, he never really conformed to traditional political lines and was known to endorse and campaign for both Republican and Democrat political candidates.

I met Charlton Heston 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. I can still remember the small TV with a built-in VCR player that I would watch old Hollywood movies on. As a kid, I would wear my plastic pirate sword and watch Heston and Yul Brenner in The Buccaneer save America from the British in the war of 1912.

Heston as Andrew Jackson, staring silently in a roomful of onlookers.
Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson in The Buccaneer.

At that time Heston was promoting a book he had written entitled The Courage To Be Free, which described standing up for one’s beliefs in the face of adversity. I remember my parents telling me that Heston would be speaking and signing copies of his book at the Richard Nixon Library in Southern California. I begged my parents to take me to see him. I did not expect to meet him, but I just wanted to have the opportunity to see the hero of so many of my favorite films, in person.

The event was well publicized, and 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 under the age of 45 was there. As we prepared to enter the auditorium, Heston came walking 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 stopping to speak to anyone else. I was shocked and thrilled beyond belief.

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 barely noticeable. I had always been so impressed that he had overcome that disability and become a major movie star despite it. What followed was a fun and charming speech that covered portions of his new book, stories from his past ,and a brief commentary on the current political landscape.

The political portions of his speech went over my head, but it was the part of his remarks centered on his role as Ben-Hur that fascinated me. He told stories about the movie set, the props they used, and how he filmed particular scenes. There was one remark that 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 and danger of 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!”

The chariot race from Ben-Hur.
The chariot race from Ben-Hur.

After Heston had finished his remarks, my parents picked up the book for me and we waited in line. As we all waited, the actor came walking through the breezeway, once more flanked by his security and attendants. He passed me and he again stopped, 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. As we neared the table, his assistant opened my book to the author’s page and told us that there would be no photographs (I was very disappointed as I wanted to show it off to all my friends). I approached the table and he took my book and signed it, looking up he smiled and humorously said: “We have to stop meeting like this!” 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—a fantastic movie if you have never seen it.

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 that stands out to me. It is not often that a celebrity is what they portray on screen, and it seems 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.

Heston with James Baldwin and Marlon Brando in a roomful of crowded onlookers, security agents, and reporters.
Charlton Heston with James Baldwin and Marlon Brando at the March on Washington in August, 1963. Public domain photo courtesy: GBH Archives.

As the years have traveled by, something Charlton 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 antidote, he explained that life can be hard, our beliefs may not be popular, or we may endure hardships in jobs or relationships 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 in my life, both emotional, physical, and financial. Heston once said “You should work for a standard that’s harder than anything anybody else can set for you” and I think this is likely why he succeeded where so many others failed in Hollywood, he was never content to sit on his laurels but was always pushing himself.

However, the advice Heston gave all those years ago has stuck with me. The harder life gets, the more my own personal Messala may try to slow me down. I just have to remember that good things are coming if I “Just stay in the damn chariot,” and I will eventually get where I am meant to be.

Written by Byron Lafayette

Byron Lafayette is a film critic and journalist. He is the current Chairman of the Independent Film Critics of America, as well as the Editor and Lead Film Critic for Viralhare and a Staff Writer for Film Obsessive. He also contributes to What Culture and many other publications. He considers Batman V Superman the best superhero film ever made and hopes one day that the genius of Josh Lucas will be recognized.

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  1. I always try to watch Ben-Hur during the Easter holiday. I rode and competed on horseback in combined training events for years, and watching the chariot race, knowing the level of skill required to manage one horse at top speed, never mind four, still takes my breath away even after 60+ years of watching.
    I always suspected Mr. Heston was a wonderful man and husband; thank you for sharing your experiences and confirming it! “Just stay in the damn chariot” should be everyone’s mantra. It is now mine.

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