Legendary actor Charlton Heston dead at age 84

April 6, 2008

Charlton Heston, the Oscar-winning actor who starred in some of Hollywood's greatest epics, has died at age 84.

Heston passed away at home in Beverly Hills on Saturday night. His wife Lydia was at his side, said Bill Powers, a family spokesperson.

Powers wouldn't give any further details, such as a cause of death.

Heston admitted in 2002 that he had symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease.

"I must reconcile courage and surrender in equal measure," he said.

"Charlton Heston was seen by the world as larger than life. He was known for his chiseled jaw, broad shoulders and resonating voice, and, of course, for the roles he played," Heston's family said in a statement.

"No one could ask for a fuller life than his. No man could have given more to his family, to his profession and to his country."

Publicist Michael Levine described Heston's passing as the end of an era.

"If Hollywood had a Mt. Rushmore, Heston's face would be on it," Levine said. "He was a heroic figure that I don't think exists to the same degree in Hollywood today."

Heston once said about himself: "I have a face that belongs in another century."

His roles included:

Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" (his then-newborn son, Fraser Clarke Heston, also appeared in the film as the infant Moses);
John the Baptist in "The Greatest Story Ever Told";
Michelangelo in "The Agony and the Ecstasy"; and
Judah Ben-Hur in "Ben-Hur"

Heston would win his one and only Academy Award in 1959 for his portrayal of a Jewish prince betrayed by a Roman friend and sent into slavery in "Ben-Hur."

"Ben-Hur" has a famous chariot race sequence within it, and Heston bristled at any suggestion the 11-minute sequence had been shot with a double.

"I couldn't drive it well, but that wasn't necessary," said Heston, who practiced for two months.

"All I had to do was stay on board so they could shoot me there. I didn't have to worry; MGM guaranteed I would win the race."

Other films would include:

"Touch of Evil";
"The Big Country";
"El Cid"; and
"Planet of the Apes"

In his later years, he had cameo appearances in films like "Tombstone" and "Wayne's World 2."

Heston also worked in theatre and had a role as a tycoon in "The Colbys," a 1980s primetime soap spun off from "Dynasty."

Early life

Heston was born Charles Carter on Oct. 4, 1923. His parents moved from a Chicago suburb to St. Helen, Mich., where his father Russell operated a lumber mill.

The youngster had few playmates in the isolated location. His pastimes were reading adventure books and wandering the woods with his rifle.

His birth parents divorced. His mother married Chester Heston and took the boy with her to Wilmette, Ill., a north Chicago suburb.

Going from the country back to the city was tough on Charlton. He gravitated to his high school's drama department.

"What acting offered me was the chance to be many other people," he said in a 1986 interview. "In those days I wasn't satisfied with being me."

He started calling himself Charlton Heston, using his mother's maiden name and stepfather's last name. He won a drama scholarship to Northwestern University in 1941, joined the Army in 1943 and married Lydia in 1944. They would stay married for 64 years.

Besides their son Fraser, they also had a daughter, Holly Ann, born in 1961.

His early work as an actor came in TV soap operas and dramas. Producer Hal Wallis ("Casablanca") lured him into films in 1950.

When Lydia reminded him they had decided to work in theatre and television, Heston said: "Well, maybe just for one film to see what it's like."


Heston was a staunch conservative in an industry seen as dominated by liberals, although he marched in support of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and would be given a honourary Oscar in 1978 for his humanitarian work.

He became president of the National Rifle Association in 1998, proclaiming his rifle could only be taken from "my cold, dead hands" and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003 -- the highest civilian honour in the United States.

"The largeness of character that comes across the screen has also been seen throughout his life," U.S. President George Bush said in issuing the honour.

Heston publicly feuded with Ed Asner, a liberal, when Asner was president of the Screen Actors Guild. He was "ambushed" by liberal documentary filmmaker Michael Moore in the Oscar-winning film "Bowling for Columbine."

Heston opposed affirmative action and blasted Actors Equity when the union wouldn't allow a white actor to play a Eurasian role in "Miss Saigon," saying the move was "obscenely racist."

He criticized CNN's reports from Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War, saying they "sowed doubt" about the allied war effort.

Time-Warner came under fire for an album by rapper Ice-T that Heston saw as encouraging cop killing.

Heston wrote in "In the Arena," one of his many books, that he was proud of taking that stance -- "though now I'll surely never be offered another film by Warners, nor get a good review in Time. On the other hand, I doubt I'll get a traffic ticket very soon."

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