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Charlton Heston: Film Icon, Conservative Activist

Charlton Heston: Film Icon, Conservative Activist

Charlton Heston starred in the title role of William Wyler's 1959 film <em>Ben-Hur</em>.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Charlton Heston starred in the title role of William Wyler's 1959 film Ben-Hur.

It's likely no other actor has been more identified with larger-than-life heroic and historical characters than Charlton Heston. The legendary actor, who died Saturday, was also a conservative political activist who spoke in favor of gun rights at the helm of the National Rifle Association.

Heston starred in a range of roles, from William Wyler's 1959 historic epic Ben-Hur to the science-fiction classic Planet of the Apes. Heston announced he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease in 2002.


Heston once commented that thanks to a broken nose from a high school football injury, he had a face that belonged to another century. When director Cecil B. DeMille was casting The Ten Commandments, someone pointed out to him that the tall actor bore a striking resemblance to Michelangelo's statue of Moses.

In an acting career that spanned more than five decades and close to 80 films, Heston will be forever linked with the character he portrayed in the 1956 biblical spectacle. In 1990, Heston talked with NPR's Terry Gross about the most famous scene from the film — the parting of the Red Sea.

"You need the stick. Obviously, those scenes are what English actors call NAR — no acting required. If you stand in front of 8,000 people in the Egyptian desert and lift up a stick and say 'Bear us out of Egypt, O Lord, as an eagle bears its young upon its wings,' you don't need to act that. The scene does it for you."

As commanding as his performance was in the role of Moses, it did not win Heston an Oscar — that would come three years later in Ben-Hur. The film won 11 Academy Awards, including the best actor nod for Heston, who did his own stunts in the film's famed chariot races.

Although Heston is known primarily as a motion picture actor, he had a great love for the stage. He began acting in high school and then landed a scholarship to Northwestern University. There, he met and married a fellow drama student, Lydia Clarke, his wife of more than 60 years. Together they raised two children.


Heston once said he had done almost every kind of film except a musical — from heroic films to science fiction to a spate of disaster films in the 1970s. But one of the actor's favorite roles was portraying a lone cowboy in the little-known 1968 film Will Penny.

The small western was overshadowed that same year by his role in Planet of the Apes. Heston said he liked the unconventional script and was more than a little surprised by the film's success.

"It was a strenuous undertaking, but it's a good film and I'm very glad I made it, since in effect it started a whole genre," Heston said.

He was to become famous on the political stage as well. He marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King in 1963, and two years later was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild. Once a liberal Democrat, Heston would soon become known for his conservative activism, campaigning for Republican candidates.

In 1998, he was elected president of the National Rifle Association, committing his distinct voice and presence as head of the nation's powerful gun lobby.

"Those wise old dead white guys that invented this country knew what they were talking about," he said.

But the line that would become more famous perhaps than any of his dramatic scripted ones was first delivered at a packed NRA convention, with a rifle raised high above his head: "From my cold, dead hands ..."

In 2002, Heston was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He made the announcement of his condition through a pre-recorded message: "If you see a little less spring in 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."

Heston ended his farewell speech with a passage from Shakespeare's The Tempest, as he often said that first, he was an actor.

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