Off Limits

Holy Moses!

The last time this town saw Charlton Heston -- the living, breathing movie star, or what passes for him these days -- was less than two weeks after the shootings at Columbine High School, when the National Rifle Association held its annual convention in Denver.

Moses came down from the mountain a half-hour late, after the crowd -- an overflow, even though the NRA had cut back its program in deference to the still-fresh tragedy -- was finally accommodated in the Adam's Mark ballroom. "I applaud your courage in coming here today," rumbled NRA president Heston, who was wearing a Columbine ribbon. "Wellington Webb, the mayor of Denver, sent me a message: 'Don't come here. We don't want you here.' They say we'll create a political distraction. But it has not been the NRA pressing for political advantage, calling press conferences to propose vast packages of new legislation.... 'Don't come here?' We are already here. This community is our home. Every community is our home. We are a 128-year-old fixture of mainstream America."

By the time Heston hits town October 24 to urge NRA members to "Vote Freedom First," that fixture will be 131 years old, only a few years older than the Hollywood star himself.

Early bird: Harry Smith returns to CBS, not Denver.
Early bird: Harry Smith returns to CBS, not Denver.

Many of Heston's years were no doubt added by his painful encounter with director (and former alternative-newspaper man) Michael Moore, who paid an impromptu call on the star while making his own movie, Bowling for Columbine. That film -- which, along with Moore, will be at the Denver International Film Festival Saturday night -- shows the icon clearly befuddled by Moore's line of questioning.

Heston, who thought he was granting an interview to a sympathetic gun lover (Moore is a card-carrying NRA member), stumbles over tough questions about the overload of gun violence in America; the NRA's mouthpiece proves to be helpless without a script. When Moore asks him to apologize to the folks in Flint, Michigan, for rallying the troops after a juvenile gun tragedy there -- a bit of campaigning remarkably similar to his post-Columbine visit to Denver -- Heston flees the interview.

Some critics have jumped on Moore for grilling a legend who is, by his own account, in the first stages of an Alzeheimer's-type illness, but while he may move slower without his chariot these days, Heston's return to Denver suggests that nobody's going to be prying steel from his cold fingers anytime soon.

Where's our cut? On Monday, CBS tapped former Denverite Harry Smith to once again anchor the sinking ship that has been The Early Show. And he owes it all to...Westword?

That's right. "I owe it all to you," repeats Smith, who by the early '80s was a popular radio DJ, occasional Westword contributor and co-host of a public-affairs program on KRMA/Channel 6 with Reynelda Muse (the bossy female voice that warns "You're delaying the departure of this train" at DIA, for those too young to remember her stint anchoring on Channel 4).

"I still had my job in radio," Smith remembers, "and there was a lot of corporate pressure, because they didn't understand radio without a format -- which is what we were doing at KHOW in the old days -- so I quit. And I couldn't get a job in commercial television to save my life. Everybody would see me; I could get appointments. I just couldn't get a job. Finally, at Channel 7, I pointed to a fistful of Westword articles and said, 'I'm not just a radio guy, I'm a writer guy,' and they said, 'You're driving us nuts. We'll pay you minimum wage for two weeks, and then you'll have to go away.'"

Four days later, KMGH-TV offered Smith a contract. Within a few years, he'd moved on to CBS's Dallas bureau and a gig as a national correspondent; then, in 1987, he joined Paula Zahn at CBS This Morning, where he lasted almost nine years. Since 1999, he's been the host of A&E's Biography (replacing Peter Graves) and also produced occasional Travels With Harry shows, a series that originated on the CBS Evening News With Dan Rather. (One episode featuring the late Gene Amole and other Colorado landmarks is scheduled to air on A&E October 26.) Although Smith will continue hosting Biography for a time, as of October 28, he'll be back at CBS in the wee hours.

"Now that the adrenaline is wearing off, I remember that call comes awfully early -- especially when you're starting a new show, with new people," says Smith. "Maybe this was a bad idea, now that it's all coming into focus." That focus includes CBS's concerns with bumping up the ratings on The Early Show, a distant third in the lucrative early-morning market. "That's the thing that's changed the most," Smith adds. "Morning television makes so much money now."

Another difference: He's not even trying to keep the bow ties that were a trademark during his days at Channel 7. The bow ties were "a very big issue" back in 1987, he says. Charles Osgood was already established as the bow-tie-wearing CBS personality, and a network bigwig told Smith that he couldn't wear them, too. "What do you mean?" Smith remembers asking. "I've been wearing them my entire adult life."

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