Charlton Heston, who won the 1959 best actor Oscar as the chariot-racing Ben-Hur and portrayed Moses, Michelangelo, El Cid and other heroic figures in movie epics of the ’50s and ’60s, has died. He was 83.
The actor died Saturday night at his home in Beverly Hills with his wife Lydia at his side, family spokesman Bill Powers said. Powers declined to comment on the cause of death or provide further details.
Heston revealed in 2002 that he had symptoms consistent with Alzheimer’s disease, saying, “I must reconcile courage and surrender in equal measure.”
With his large, muscular build, well-boned face and sonorous voice, Heston proved the ideal star during the period when Hollywood was filling movie screens with panoramas depicting the religious and historical past. “I have a face that belongs in another century,” he often remarked.
The actor assumed the role of leader offscreen as well. He 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.
In June 1998, Heston was elected president of the National Rifle Association, for which he had posed for ads holding a rifle. He delivered a jab at then-President Clinton, saying, “America doesn’t trust you with our 21-year-old daughters, and we sure, Lord, don’t trust you with our guns.”
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, Heston 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.
He engaged in a lengthy feud with liberal Ed Asner during the latter’s tenure as president of the Screen Actors Guild. His latter-day activism almost overshadowed his achievements as an actor, which were considerable.
Heston lent his strong presence to some of the most acclaimed and successful films of the midcentury. Ben-Hur won 11 Academy Awards, tying it for the record with the more recent Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Heston’s other hits include The Ten Commandments, El Cid, 55 Days at Peking, Planet of the Apes and Earthquake.
He liked the cite the number of historical figures he had portrayed:
Andrew Jackson (The President’s Lady, The Buccaneer), Moses (The Ten Commandments), title role of El Cid, John the Baptist (The Greatest Story Ever Told), Michelangelo (The Agony and the Ecstasy), General Gordon (Khartoum), Marc Antony (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra), Cardinal Richelieu (The Three Musketeers), Henry VIII (The Prince and the Pauper).
Heston made his movie debut in the 1940s in two independent films by a college classmate, David Bradley, who later became a noted film archivist. He had the title role in Peer Gynt in 1942 and was Marc Antony in Bradley’s 1949 version of Julius Caesar, for which Heston was paid $50 a week.
Film producer Hal B. Wallis (Casablanca) spotted Heston in a 1950 television production of Wuthering Heights and offered him a contract. When his wife reminded him that they had decided to pursue theater and television, he replied, “Well, maybe just for one film to see what it’s like.”
Heston earned star billing from his first Hollywood movie, Dark City, a 1950 film noir. Cecil B. DeMille next cast him as the circus manager in the all-star The Greatest Show On Earth, named by the Motion Picture Academy as the best picture of 1952.