Charlton Heston, 84; actor was larger than life, on screen and off

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Robert W. Welkos and Susan King
Los Angeles Times / April 6, 2008

LOS ANGELES — Charlton Heston, the Oscar-winning actor who achieved stardom playing larger-than-life figures including Moses, Michelangelo, and Andrew Jackson in historical epics and went on to become a best-selling author, a contentious Hollywood labor leader, and an unapologetic gun advocate and darling of conservative causes, died yesterday. He was 84.

Mr. Heston died at his Beverly Hills home with his wife of 64 years, Lydia, by his side, his family said in a statement. In 2002, he had been diagnosed with symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer’s disease.

‘‘Charlton Heston was seen by the world as larger than life,’’ the family statement read. ‘‘He was known for his chiseled jaw, broad shoulders and resonating voice, and, of course, for the roles he played,’’ the release continued.

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.

Mr. Heston won the Academy Award for best actor in another religious blockbuster in 1959’s ‘‘Ben-Hur,’’ racing four white horses at top speed in one of the cinema’s legendary action 8sequences — the 15-minute chariot race in which his character, a proud and noble Jew, competes against his childhood Roman friend, played by Stephen Boyd.

‘‘I don’t seem to fit really into the 20th century,’’ Mr. Heston said in a 1965 interview. ‘‘Pretty soon, though, I’ve got to get a part where I wear pants with pleats and pockets.’’

Mr. Heston stunned the entertainment world in 8August 2002 when he made a poignant and moving videotaped address announcing his illness.

A few days after his dramatic announcement, Mr. Heston would sit down for an interview in his beloved Coldwater Canyon home, which he always said ‘‘Ben-Hur’’ had built, and faced the uncertain future with brave resolve and a sense of humor.

‘‘The world is a tough place,’’ he said with a chuckle. ‘‘You’re never going to get out of it alive.’’

Mr. Heston served as president of the Screen Actors Guild and chairman of the American Film Institute and marched in the civil rights movement of the 1950s. With age, he grew more conservative and campaigned for conservative candidates.

Late in life, Mr. Heston’s stature as a political firebrand overshadowed his acting. He 8became demonized by gun control advocates and liberal Hollywood when he became president of the National Rifle Association in 1998.

Mr. 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 8over his head and challenged his detractors to pry the rifle ‘‘from my cold, dead hands.’’

Mr. Heston stepped down as NRA president in April 2003, telling members his five years in office were ‘‘quite a ride. ..... I loved every minute of it.’’

Later that year, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. ‘‘The largeness of character that comes across the screen has also been seen throughout his life,’’ President Bush said at the time.

Mr. Heston was born John Charles Carter in Evanston, Ill., on Oct. 4, 1924, though some sources say he was born in 1923.

The family soon after moved to rural Michigan, where his parents divorced. His mother remarried and moved to Wilmette, Ill., a Chicago suburb. Mr. Heston took his professional name by combining his mother’s maiden name, Lila Charlton, with that of his stepfather, Chester Heston.

Mr. Heston described himself as a nerd when he was a child, ‘‘before the word had even been invented — shy, skinny, short, pimply, and ill-dressed.’’ He started acting in high school plays and won a scholarship to Northwestern University.

He said he got a lucky break playing football when he cracked his nose. It gave him a more rugged face.

‘‘It’s been a vast asset to my career,’’ he has said.

Mr. Heston served in the US Army Air Corps in World War II, and married Lydia Clarke, also a student at Northwestern, in 1944. The couple had two children, including a son, Fraser Clarke, who played the baby Moses in ‘‘The Ten Commandments.’’

After getting out of the military and doing some modeling in New York, Mr. Heston headed to Hollywood. He had one film, ‘‘Dark City,’’ on his resume when he had a stroke of luck. Driving out of the studio lot one day in his convertible, he waved at director DeMille. The director liked the wave, asked who he was, and signed him to play the circus manager in, ‘‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’’

The film won the Oscar for best picture in 1952 and led Mr. Heston to the role of Moses in DeMille’s ‘‘The Ten Commandments,’’ which also won an Oscar as best picture.

‘‘Ben-Hur’’ came in 1959, and Mr. Heston spent five weeks learning how to drive a team of four white horses for the chariot race scene, one of the greatest action scenes ever filmed.

Like the chariot race and the bearded prophet Moses, Mr. Heston will be best remembered for several indelible cinematic 8moments: playing a deadly game of cat and mouse with Orson Welles in the oil fields in ‘‘Touch of Evil,’’ his rant at the end of ‘‘Planet of the Apes’’ when he sees the destruction of the Statue of Liberty, his discovery that ‘‘Soylent Green is people!’’ in the sci-fi hit ‘‘Soylent Green,’’ and the dead Spanish hero on his steed in ‘‘El Cid.’’

For decades, Mr. 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.’’

Mr. Heston also was blessed by working with legendary directors such Sam Peckinpah in ‘‘Major Dundee,’’ William Wyler in ‘‘The Big Country’’ and ‘‘Ben-Hur,’’ George Stevens in ‘‘The Greatest Story Ever Told,’’ Franklin Schaffner in ‘‘The War Lord’’ and ‘‘Planet of the Apes,’’ and Anthony Mann in ‘‘El Cid.’’

In addition to his wife, he leaves children Fraser Clarke Heston and Holly Heston Rochell, and three grandchildren.

Material from the Associated Press and Bloomberg News was used in this obituary.

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