Screen icon remembered for heroic roles

Charlton Heston, one of Hollywood’s most visible and controversial stars, best remembered for such straight-faced heroic roles as Moses in “The Ten Commandments” and the Oscar-winning title role of “Ben-Hur,” died Saturday at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 84.

Although a cause was not given, Heston announced in August 2002 that he was suffering from symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

The clench-jawed, stoic actor became synonymous with biblical roles, though they played a small portion of his screen output. Heston became increasingly political and conservative in his later years, acting as a spokesman for right-leaning Hollywood. He championed the National Rifle Assn. and performers and crews in right-to-work states, which earned him an official censure from the Screen Actors Guild, an organization he had once headed.

But as his critics and admirers admitted, the stentorian Heston took his larger-than-life acting assignments seriously. Heston epitomized the righteous, virile man. And it permeated every role he undertook from Moses to the trapped astronaut in “Planet of the Apes.” In his later years, it verged on self-parody, and he sometimes had the good sense to play along with it in such cameo appearances as James Cameron’s “True Lies.”

Born in Evanston, Ill., his birth name was Charlton Carter, the son of a lumber mill operator. Most of his childhood was spent in remote St. Helen, Mich. When his parents divorced, and his mother remarried Chester Heston, he moved to affluent Wilmette, Ill., and attended New Trier Township High School.

Heston entered Northwestern U. on a drama scholarship, and during his two years in college appeared regularly on Chicago-based radio programs. He enlisted in the military and spent most of his three-year tour of duty in the Aleutians as a radio-gunner on B-52 aircraft.

During WWII, he married actress Lydia Clarke and after he was discharged, they moved to New York, where both failed to find work. They became co-directors and leading players at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Theater in Asheville, N.C., putting on productions of “The State of the Union” and “The Glass Menagerie.” Then Heston nabbed his first Broadway assignment, in a supporting role of “Antony and Cleopatra,” starring Katharine Cornell. Two other Broadway roles, “Leaf and Bough” and “Design for a Stained Glass Window,” failed and Heston was back doing stock.

His talents were perfectly suited for the emerging television industry. Successful screen and theater actors could not afford to work for $68 for a two-week job, Heston recalled. And through anthology programs such as CBS’ Studio One, Heston was given national exposure in starring roles in broadcast presentations of “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Macbeth” and “Jane Eyre,” roles it might have taken him years to land on Broadway or in films. His role in “Jane Eyre” brought him to the attention of Paramount producer Hal Wallis, who signed him to a long-term contract in 1950.

“Dark City” was Heston’s film debut, a one-note role as a crooked gambler. Even so, he was noticed. Next, he was Jennifer Jones’ love interest in “Ruby Gentry” and the heartless circus boss in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Heston’s first larger-than-life role was as President Andrew Jackson in “The President’s Lady.” Mostly, though, Wallis kept him working in B-movies like “The Naked Jungle” and “The Secret of the Incas.”

DeMille, who had given him his first juicy role in “Greatest Show,” decided that the baritone-voiced actor resembled Michaelangelo’s statue of Moses, and cast him as the savior of the Israelites in the sound version of “The Ten Commandments,” which became the second-largest grossing film after “Gone With the Wind” and has become an Easter perennial on TV. It also began his image as a biblical actor.

One of Heston’s finest performances was as a Mexican narcotics investigator in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” followed by equally unshowy performances in “The Big Country” and “The Wreck of the Mary Deare.”

Heston was assigned the role in MGM’s $15 million “Ben-Hur” after it was turned down by such actors as Marlon Brando and Burt Lancaster, and when actor Cesare Danova’s English proved to be inadequate. The pic grossed more than “Ten Commandments” and won 11 Oscars, more than any other film at the time, including actor honors for Heston.

Over the next decade, Heston’s face was constantly seen in Panavision or Cinemascope in bulky epics such as “El Cid,” “Fifty-Five Days at Peking,” “The Agony and the Ecstasy” and “Khartoum.”

“Khartoum” brought him his finest reviews, and critics said he held his own against no-less a powerhouse than Laurence Olivier. Other less flashy or financially successful roles in “The War Lord”; “Major Dundee,” where he tangled with director Sam Peckinpah; “Number One”; and “Will Penny,” solidified his reputation as a commanding screen presence.

Franklin Schaffner’s “Planet of the Apes” was a major success, generating several sequels, of which Heston appeared in only one. At his height, he was collecting $750,000 per film and a percentage of the gross.

Perhaps in an attempt to be taken more seriously, Heston turned to Shakespeare, appearing as Marc Antony to John Gielgud’s Julius Caesar and in a self-directed version of “Antony and Cleopatra.”

Heston, however, never graduated into the kind of first-rate character roles that occupied actors like Brando and Burt Lancaster in their later years, although he turned in an amusingly villainous Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lester’s 1974 two-part version of “The Three Musketeers.” He was always the hero, but his larger-than-life performances were sometimes over the top, in films such as “Soylent Green,” “Airport ‘75” and “Earthquake,” causing Pauline Kael to remark, “No one is expected to believe in the acts he performs; he’s a wind-up hero machine.”

Heston claimed he had done some of these films because of money, which bought him the freedom to tackle challenging stage productions such as “Macbeth,” “The Crucible,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” and “A Man for All Seasons.”

But his image had so solidified that when he asked to play the Roy Scheider role in “Jaws,” director Steven Spielberg declined, saying it would ruin the suspense, because the audience would expect “Moses” to win. In addition to appearing in films written or directed by his son Fraser, such as “The Mountain Men,” Heston returned to television in the CBS miniseries “Chiefs,” TV movies such as “Original Sin” and as Jason Colby in “The Colbys,” an ABC primetime soap that was a less successful spinoff of the wildly popular “Dynasty.”

He continued to appear in small roles in films including Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet,” Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday,” and in one of his final roles, as an uncredited ape in Tim Burton’s 2001 “Planet of the Apes” remake.

Starting in 1965, for three two-year terms, Heston was president of SAG. He was on the board from 1960 to 1975. During Edward Asner’s term as SAG prexy, Heston frequently clashed with Asner, accusing him of politicizing the union.

In the early ‘80s, Heston championed Actors Working for an Actor’s Guild (AWAG), a conservative arm of SAG. As a proponent of right-to-work states such as Idaho and in opposition of the merger of SAG and the Screen Extras Guild, Heston clashed with the union and was officially censured in 1986 — a first for the organization.

In 1988, a group Heston helped form, SAG Leaders for Labor Justice, filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that members of private sector unions should be allowed to pay only the portion of their union dues that goes to directly negotiating and enforcing union contracts. Heston’s side prevailed at the court, paving the way for the “financial core” option for talent who don’t want to pay to support their guilds’ other activities.

Although he started out appearing on behalf of such liberal candidates as Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy and was a civil rights supporter, in later years he switched to the Republican Party, and once flirted with the idea of challenging incumbent Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif). But, he admitted, it would take him out of serious contention as an actor and “it (acting) means too much to me. I’d rather play a senator than be one.”

He was elected president of the NRA in 1998 and was famously quoted as saying the only way his gun would be taken away “is from my cold, dead hands.” When Michael Moore pressured him to answer questions about the nation’s gun use in “Bowling for Columbine,” he angrily walked out of the interview.

In addition to serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild, he was chairman of the American Film Institute and head of President Reagan’s Task Force on the Arts and Humanities. Among the honors he received were the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award, the Hollywood Foreign Press Cecil B. DeMille Award and the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by President Bush in 2003.

He wrote several books, including “The Actor’s Life: Journals, 1956-76” and “In the Arena: An Autobiography.”

He announced his battle with Alzheimer’s symptoms in a videotaped statement, asking his friends and admirers for their patience. “For an actor, there is no greater loss than the loss of his audience. I can part the Red Sea, but I can’t part with you. … If you see a little less spring to my step, if your name fails to leap to my lips, you’ll know why. And if I tell you a funny story for the second time, please laugh anyway.”

He is survived by his wife, Lydia; son Fraser, a writer, director and producer; daughter Holly Heston Rochell; and three grandchildren.

Services will be private.

Donations may be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund, 22212 Ventura Blvd., Suite 300, Woodland Hills, CA.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more