Oscar winner Charlton Heston Dies
Heston died Saturday at his Beverly Hills home, said family spokesman Bill Powers. In 2002, he had been diagnosed with symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer's disease.
With a booming baritone voice, the tall, ruggedly handsome actor delivered his signature role as the prophet Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 biblical extravaganza "The Ten Commandments," raising a rod over his head as God miraculously parts the Red Sea.
Heston won the Academy Award for best actor in another religious blockbuster in 1959's "Ben-Hur," racing four white
Heston stunned the entertainment world in
Late in life, Heston's stature as a political firebrand overshadowed his acting. He became demonized by gun-control advocates and liberal Hollywood when he became president of the National Rifle Association in 1998.
Heston answered his critics in a now-famous pose that mimicked Moses' parting of the Red Sea. But instead of a rod, Heston raised a flintlock over his head and challenged his detractors to pry the rifle "from my cold, dead hands."
Like the chariot race and the bearded prophet Moses, Heston will be best remembered for several indelible cinematic moments: playing a deadly game of cat and mouse with
The New Yorker's film critic
For decades, the 6-foot-2 Heston was a towering figure in the world of movies, television and the stage.
"He was the screen hero of the 1950s and 1960s, a proven stayer in epics, and a pleasing combination of piercing blue eyes and tanned beefcake," David Thomson wrote in his book "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film."
Heston also was blessed by working with legendary directors such as DeMille in "The Greatest Show on Earth" and again in "The Ten Commandments," Welles in "Touch of Evil,"
"Four or five of those men would be on anybody's all-time great list," Heston said in a 1983 interview. "And if I picked up one scrap, one piece of business, from each of them, then today I would be a hell of a director."
After the war, he went on countless auditions as a stage actor in New York. His professional name was a combination of his mother's maiden name, Charlton, and the last name of his stepfather, Chester Heston.
He made his Broadway debut opposite legendary stage actress Katharine Cornell in Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" as Proculeius, Caesar's aide-de-camp.
Heston found steady employment in the new medium of television. His big break occurred in 1949, when he appeared in the
In 1949, he attracted the attention of veteran film producer Hal Wallis. Without an audition, Wallis signed Heston to an independent contract for five pictures with the option he could accept other roles.
Heston's first picture for Wallis was the 1950 film noir "Dark City" opposite femme fatale
But it was his chance meeting on the Paramount Pictures lot with DeMille that propelled Heston to stardom. The role that the flamboyant director wanted him for was the rugged circus manager in the 1952 big-top spectacular, "The Greatest Show on Earth," which won the Academy Award for best picture.
Over the next three years, Heston made 11 movies, playing Buffalo Bill Cody in "Pony Express" and Andrew Jackson in "The President's Lady." Then DeMille entered his life again, casting Heston as Moses in "The Ten Commandments."
"My choice was strikingly confirmed," DeMille wrote, "when I had a sketch made of Charlton Heston in a white beard and happened to set it beside a photograph of Michelangelo's famous statue of Moses. The resemblance was amazing; and it was not merely an external likeness."
He wasn't the only Heston in the film. His baby son, Fraser, made his screen debut as the infant Moses who is carried downstream in a basket.
"The Ten Commandments," a blockbuster hit, was followed by "Touch of Evil" and "The Big Country."
Then came "Ben-Hur."
Ironically, though it was arguably Heston's most famous role, and the only one that earned him an Oscar, he was not the first actor considered.
The film's breathtaking chariot race, directed by legendary stuntman
Playing larger-than-life heroes seemed to carry over into real-life politics for Heston. He was one of the major Hollywood stars who marched with the Rev.
But Heston's politics soon veered right and he became an admirer of conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who was the
"My politics haven't changed -- it was the
Always a political animal, Heston relished his role as a lightning rod for criticism over his passionate defense of gun ownership. He once told the Times of
In 1998, with his acting career waning, Heston became president of the NRA and instantly became one of the more politically polarizing figures in America.
During his five-year reign as NRA president, Heston vowed to push the group "back into the mainstream" of American politics.
His name was so synonymous with the defense of guns and gun owners that
Heston was not afraid of taking on entertainment corporations such as the giant
Though his film work occupied most of his career, he never abandoned his theatrical roots. He was a mainstay for years on stage, especially at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, tackling everything from
Although Heston had fond memories of working with Welles, Wyler and DeMille, he didn't always get along with filmmakers, especially the scrappy, hard-living Sam Peckinpah, who directed him in the 1965 intense western "Major Dundee."
As Heston recalled it in his autobiography, the actor took umbrage after Peckinpah changed directions and swore at the actor for disobeying his command. Heston drew his saber and rode full-speed at the director, who leaped aside only moments before the sword-wielding actor galloped past him.
"I can't believe I would have actually ridden Sam down, let alone sabered him," Heston wrote. "But I was as angry as I can remember being in my life." Heston would call "Major Dundee" a "disappointing" film.
After "Ben-Hur," Heston had an uneven film career. In the 1960s, he continued to play historical characters in lavish epics such as Michelangelo in "The Agony and the Ecstasy" and Gen. Charles "Chinese" Gordon in "Khartoum." But none of them were as successful critically as "Ben-Hur."
Then, in 1968, he appeared in two roles vastly different from what his fans were accustomed to -- one that brought him box office success and the other critical kudos.
Heston brought a quiet strength and dignity to his role as an aging cowpoke in the character-driven western "Will Penny," directed by Tom Gries. Though the film wasn't a commercial success, reviewers admired his understated turn. Leonard Maltin called it one of the best films on the cowboy-loner ever to come out of Hollywood.
But Heston scored his biggest post-"Ben-Hur" success with his first foray into science fiction, playing a no-nonsense, heroic astronaut whose space capsule crashes on a planet ruled by intelligent, English-speaking apes and where humans were treated like chattel. Although he had often shown his buffed physique on screen, "Planet" marked the first time he appeared in a nude scene.
Though many of his films in the 1970s did well at the box office, like the sci-fi
The 1980s marked his return to television, starring in
Despite his granite-jawed, Moses-like image, Heston was not above poking fun at himself. In the twilight of his career, he was a jovial two-time host of "Saturday Night Live," and had a cameo as "the good actor" in "Wayne's World 2," and even appeared as himself in a 1998 episode of the hit
Although his days as the leading man were over, he worked steadily in small but interesting roles, including the one-eyed
Throughout his life, Heston was active in various areas of the entertainment industry. Besides serving as president of the
In addition to his Oscar, Heston received numerous U.S. and international awards and honors, among them the
In later years, Heston battled physical ailments. In 1996, he underwent hip replacement surgery and two years later he was treated for
In addition to his wife and son, Heston is survived by a daughter, Holly Heston Rochell; and three grandchildren.