April 6, 2008
Charlton Heston, Epic Film Star and Voice of N.R.A., Dies at 84
By ROBERT BERKVIST
Charlton Heston, who appeared in some 100 films in his 60-year acting career but who is remembered chiefly for his monumental, jut-jawed portrayals of Moses, Ben-Hur and Michelangelo, died Saturday night at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 84.
His death was confirmed by a spokesman for the family, Bill Powers, who did not specify a cause. In August 2002, Mr. Heston announced that he had received a diagnosis of neurological symptoms “consistent with Alzheimer’s disease.”
“I’m neither giving up nor giving in,” he said.
Every actor dreams of a breakthrough role, the part that stamps him in the public memory, and Mr. Heston’s life changed forever when he caught the eye of the director Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille, who was planning his next biblical spectacular, “The Ten Commandments,” looked at the young, physically imposing Mr. Heston and saw his Moses.
When the film was released, in 1956, more than three and a half hours long and the most expensive that De Mille had ever made, Mr. Heston became a marquee name. Whether leading the Israelites through the wilderness, parting the Red Sea or coming down from Mount Sinai with the tablets from God in hand, he was a Moses to remember.
Writing in The New York Times nearly 30 years afterward, when the film was re-released for a brief run, Vincent Canby called it “a gaudy, grandiloquent Hollywood classic” and suggested there was more than a touch of “the rugged American frontiersman of myth” in Mr. Heston’s Moses.
The same quality made Mr. Heston an effective spokesman, off screen, for the causes he believed in. Late in life he became a staunch opponent of gun control. Elected president of the National Rifle Association in 1998, he proved to be a powerful campaigner against what he saw as the government’s attempt to infringe on a constitutional guarantee — the right to bear arms.
In Mr. Heston, the N.R.A. found its embodiment of pioneer values — pride, independence and valor. In a speech at the N.R.A.’s annual convention in 2000, he brought the audience to its feet with a ringing attack on gun-control advocates. Paraphrasing an N.R.A. bumper sticker (“I’ll give you my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands”), he waved a replica of a colonial musket above his head and shouted defiantly, “From my cold, dead hands!”
Mr. Heston’s screen presence was so commanding that he was never dominated by mammoth sets, spectacular effects or throngs of spear-waving extras. In his films, whether playing Buffalo Bill, an airline pilot, a naval captain or the commander of a spaceship, he essentially projected the same image — muscular, steely-eyed, courageous. If critics used terms like “marble-monumental” or “granitic” to describe his acting style, they just as often praised his forthright, no-nonsense characterizations.
After his success in “The Ten Commandments,” Mr. Heston tried a change of pace. Working for another legendary Hollywood director, Orson Welles, he played a Mexican narcotics investigator in the thriller “Touch of Evil,” in which Welles himself played a murderous sheriff in a border town. Also starring Janet Leigh and Marlene Dietrich, the film, a modest success when it opened in 1958, came to be accepted as a noir classic.
A Biblical Specialty
But the following year Mr. Heston stepped back into the world of the biblical epic, this time for the director William Wyler. The movie was “Ben-Hur.” Cast as a prince in ancient Judea who rebels against the rule of Rome, Mr. Heston again dominated the screen. In the film’s most spectacular sequence, he and his co-star, Stephen Boyd, as his Roman rival, fight a thrilling duel with whips as their horse-drawn chariots career wheel-to-wheel around an arena filled with roaring spectators.
“Ben-Hur” won 11 Academy Awards — a record at the time — including those for best picture, best director and, for Mr. Heston, best actor.
He went on to star opposite Sophia Loren in the 1961 film “El Cid,” battling the Moors in medieval Spain. As a Marine officer at the Forbidden City in 1900, he helped put down the Boxer Rebellion in Nicholas Ray’s 1963 epic “55 Days at Peking.” In “Khartoum” (1966), he played Gen. Charles (Chinese) Gordon, who was killed in a desert uprising, led in the film by Laurence Olivier’s Mahdi. When George Stevens produced and directed “The Greatest Story Ever Told” in 1965, there was Mr. Heston, back in ancient Judea, playing John the Baptist to Max von Sydow’s Jesus.
He portrayed Andrew Jackson twice, in “The President’s Lady” (1953) and “The Buccaneer” (1958). There were westerns (“Major Dundee,” “Will Penny,” “The Mountain Men”), costume dramas (“The Three Musketeers” and its sequel, “The Four Musketeers,” with Mr. Heston as the crafty Cardinal Richelieu in both) and action films aplenty. Whether playing a hard-bitten landowner in an adaptation of James Michener’s novel “The Hawaiians” (1970), or a daring pilot in “Airport 1975,” he could be relied on to give moviegoers their money’s worth.
In 1965 he was cast as Michelangelo in the film version of Irving Stone’s novel “The Agony and the Ecstasy.” Directed by Carol Reed, the film pitted Mr. Heston’s temperamental artist against Rex Harrison’s testy Pope Julius II, who commissioned Michelangelo to create frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Mr. Heston’s performance took a critical drubbing, but to audiences, the larger-than-life role seemed to be another perfect fit. Mr. Heston once joked: “I have played three presidents, three saints and two geniuses. If that doesn’t create an ego problem, nothing does.”
Foray Into the Future
Mr. Heston was catapulted into the distant future in the 1968 science-fiction film “Planet of the Apes,” in which he played an astronaut marooned on a desolate planet and then enslaved by its rulers, a race of anthropomorphic apes. The film was a hit. He reprised the role two years later in the sequel, “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.”
It was all a long way from Evanston, Ill., where Charlton Carter was born on Oct. 4, 1923, and from the small town of St. Helen, Mich., where his family moved when he was a small boy and where his father ran a lumber mill. He attended a one-room school and learned to fish and hunt and to savor the feeling of being self-reliant in the wild, where his shyness was no handicap.
When his parents divorced in the 1930s and his mother remarried — his stepfather’s surname was Heston — the family moved back to the Chicago suburbs, this time Winnetka. He joined the theater program at his new high school and went on to enroll at Northwestern University on a scholarship. By that time, he was convinced he had found his life’s work.
Mr. Heston also found a fellow drama student, Lydia Clarke, whom he married in 1944, just before he enlisted in the Army Air Forces. He became a radio-gunner and spent three years stationed in the Aleutian Islands. After his discharge, the Hestons moved to New York, failed to find work in the theater and, somewhat disenchanted but still determined, moved to North Carolina, where they spent several seasons working at the Thomas Wolfe memorial theater in Asheville.
When they returned to New York in 1947, Mr. Heston got his first big break, landing the role of Caesar’s lieutenant in a Broadway production of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” staged by Guthrie McClintick and starring Katharine Cornell. The production ran for seven months and proved to be the high point of Mr. Heston’s New York stage career. He appeared in a handful of other plays, most of them dismal failures.
If Broadway had little to offer him, television was another matter. He made frequent appearances in dramatic series like “Robert Montgomery Presents” and “Philco Playhouse.” The door to Hollywood opened when the film producer Hal B. Wallis saw Mr. Heston’s performance as Rochester in a “Studio One” production of “Jane Eyre.” Wallis offered him a contract.
Mr. Heston made his film debut in 1950 in Wallis’s “Dark City,” a low-grade thriller in which he played a small-time gambler. Two years later, he did his first work for DeMille as a hard-driving circus boss in “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Throughout his career he studied long and hard for his roles. He prepared for the part of Moses by memorizing passages from the Old Testament. When filming began on the sun-baked slopes of Mount Sinai, he suggested to DeMille that he play the role barefoot — a decision that he felt lent an edge of truth to his performance.
Preparing for “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” he read hundreds of Michelangelo’s letters and practiced how to sculpt and paint convincingly. When filming “The Wreck of the Mary Deare” (1959), in which he played the pilot of a salvage boat, he learned deep-water diving. And he mostly rejected stunt doubles. In “Ben-Hur,” he said, he drove his own chariot for “about 80 percent of the race.”
“I worked six weeks learning how to manage the four white horses,” he said. “Nearly pulled my arms right out of their sockets.”
As the years wore on, the leading roles began to go to younger men, and by the 1980s, Mr. Heston’s appearances on screen were less frequent. He turned to stage work again, not on Broadway but in Los Angeles, at the Ahmanson Theater, where he played roles ranging from Macbeth to James Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” He also returned to television, appearing in 1983 as a paternalistic banker in the mini-series “Chiefs” and as an oil baron in the series “The Colbys.”
Mr. Heston was always able to channel some energies into the public arena. He was an active supporter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., calling him “a 20th-century Moses for his people,” and participated in the historic march on Washington in 1963.
Inspired by Reagan
He served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1966 to 1971, following in the footsteps of his friend and role model Ronald Reagan. A registered Democrat for many years, he was nevertheless selective in the candidates he chose to support and often campaigned for conservatives.
In 1981, President Reagan appointed him co-chairman of the President’s Task Force on the Arts and Humanities, a group formed to devise ways to obtain financing for arts organizations. Although he had reservations about some projects supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, Mr. Heston wound up defending the agency against charges of elitism.
Again and again, he proved himself a cogent and effective speaker, but he rejected suggestions that he run for office. “I’d rather play a senator than be one,” he said.
He became a Republican after Democrats in the Senate blocked the confirmation of Judge Robert Bork, a conservative, to the Supreme Court in 1987. Mr. Heston had supported the nomination and was critical of the Reagan White House for misreading the depth of the liberal opposition.
Mr. Heston frequently spoke out against what he saw as evidence of the decline and debasement of American culture. In 1992, appalled by the lyrics on “Cop Killer,” a recording by the rap artist Ice T, he blasted the album at a Time Warner stockholders meeting and was a force in having it withdrawn from the marketplace.
In the 1996 elections, he campaigned on behalf of some 50 Republican candidates and began to speak out against gun control. In 1997, he was elected vice president of the N.R.A.
In December of that year, as the keynote speaker at the 20th anniversary gala of the Free Congress Foundation, Mr. Heston described “a cultural war” raging across America, “storming our values, assaulting our freedoms, killing our self-confidence in who we are and what we believe.”
A Relentless Drive
The next year, in his 70’s, he was elected president of the N.R.A. In his speech at the association’s convention before his election, he trained his oratorical artillery on President Bill Clinton: “Mr. Clinton, sir, America didn’t trust you with our health care system. America didn’t trust you with gays in the military. America doesn’t trust you with our 21-year-old daughters, and we sure, Lord, don’t trust you with our guns.”
He was in the news again after the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in April 1999, when he said that the N.R.A.’s annual membership meeting, scheduled to be held the following week in Denver, would be scaled back in light of the killings but not canceled.
In a memorable scene from “Bowling for Columbine,” a 2002 documentary about violence in America, the director, Michael Moore, visited Mr. Heston at his home and asked him how he could defend his pro-gun stance. Mr. Heston ended the interview without comment.
In May 2001, he was unanimously re-elected to an unprecedented fourth term by the association’s board of directors. The association had amended its bylaws in 2000 to allow Mr. Heston to serve a third one-year term as president. Two months after his celebrated speech at the 2000 convention, it was disclosed that he had checked himself into an alcohol rehabilitation program.
Mr. Heston was proud of his collection of some 30 guns at his longtime home in the Coldwater Canyon area of Los Angeles, where he and his wife raised their son, Fraser, and daughter, Holly Ann. They all survive him, along with three grandchildren.
Never much for socializing , he spent his days either working, exercising, reading (he was fond of biographies) or sketching. An active diarist, he published several accounts of his career, including “The Actor’s Life: Journals 1956-1976.”
In 2003, Mr. Heston was among the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by President Bush. In 1997, he was also a recipient of the annual Kennedy Center honors.
Mr. Heston continued working through the 1990s, acting more frequently on television but also in occasional films. His most recent film appearance found him playing a cameo role, in simian makeup, in Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of “Planet of the Apes.”
He announced in 1999 that he was receiving radiation treatments for prostate cancer, but said he would continue his film work and go on making appearances on behalf of Republicans running for office.
He had always hated the thought of retirement and once explained his relentless drive as an actor. “You never get it right,” he said in a 1986 interview. “Never once was it the way I imagined it lying awake at 4 o’clock in the morning thinking about it the next day.” His goal remained, he said, “to get it right one time.”