Charlton Heston was my friend.
We met only once, for a few hours at his Beverly Hills home.
A dozen letters, a phone call or two, and a score of Christmas cards mark the full extent of our communication.
And yet I consider my friendship with Charlton Heston one of the high points of my life.
Why? Because of what he taught me at one of the lowest points of my life.
“Chuck” Heston was an encourager.
In 1977, after nearly twenty years as creator, artist, and author of the cartoon strip Rick O’Shay, I was leaving my creation. Contract negotiations with the syndicate that owned and distributed the strip broke down. Verbal assurances were withdrawn. Ultimatums were delivered, and declined. There would be no compromise, no meeting of the minds. The strip I had created and developed would be taken from me and continued by “a new creative team.”
Like many another American before and after, I was suddenly unemployed, with payments to make and a family to support. I was angry. I was discouraged. I was depressed. Syndicate announced the change to Rick O’Shay’s client newspapers and an avalanche of letters filled my mailbox.
“How could you?” the writers asked. “Say it isn’t so!” they pleaded. “Why did you sell Rick O’Shay? (I didn’t, of course. The strip belonged to the syndicate from the moment I signed my contract. In 1958, signing over the rights to his creation was virtually the only way for a new cartoonist to become syndicated.)
Then one particular letter arrived. It was from, of all people, Charlton Heston.
The Academy Award-winning star of Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, El Cid, Touch of Evil, Julius Caesar, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Will Penny, The Mountain Men–had written a fan letter…to me! (My then eight-year-old son called it my “letter from Moses.”)
In the letter, Heston expressed his regrets at the news I was no longer drawing Rick O’Shay. “I cannot help regretting,” he wrote, “that we will see no more of the beautifully drawn and engaging characters with which you populated Conniption.”
He went on to compliment me on my draftsmanship and added, “As an actor, I also valued the high quality of your dialogue. Believe me, not many writers have your ear for spoken English. I always noted with additional pleasure the pains you took to emphasize the right words, too. The lines were read well.”
“Let me thank you for the pleasure you’ve given me,” he concluded, and signed the letter, “Gratefully, Charlton Heston.”
He could not have known how important his words were to me at that particular moment. I wrote to tell him and to express my admiration for his film work. Thus began a friendship between us that lasted until complications of Alzheimer’s disease ended his remarkable life.
I went on to create a second nationally syndicated strip, Latigo, and a self-syndicated feature, Grass Roots, before turning my hand to western fiction in 1995. My friend, “Chuck” Heston, was there to encourage me every step of the way. He wrote an introduction to the very first book I published, Rick O’Shay, Hipshot, and Me. He read my novels and recommended them to others.
As I came to know him better, I learned that Chuck frequently took the time to express his appreciation to the people he encountered. He taught me by his example the power of encouragement, and he reminded me we can all make a difference.
Maybe we can’t solve all the problems of our fallen world or set the wrong things right, but we can make a start. We can let our children know we believe in them. We can offer a compliment to our spouse or significant other. We can smile at the mail man. We can wave to the paper boy. We can tell a waitress we appreciate her service; better yet, we can tell her boss.
We can, like my friend Chuck, be an encourager.