LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Oscar-winning U.S. actor Charlton Heston, whose chiseled features and commanding presence won him epic roles from Moses to Michelangelo and became the face of American gun rights, died on Saturday night at age 84.
Heston died at his home in Beverly Hills, California, with wife Lydia at his side, the family said in a statement. Heston, who won the 1959 best actor Oscar for the title role in “Ben-Hur” in which he did many of his own chariot race stunts, had announced in 2002 that he was suffering symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Charlton Heston was seen by the world as larger than life,” the family said. “No one could ask for a fuller life than his. No man could have given more to his family, to his profession, and to his country. In his own words, ‘I have lived such a wonderful life! I’ve lived enough for two people.’”
The family said a private memorial service would be held.
In his acting heyday, Heston’s rugged features and conservative lifestyle seemed to belong to another age. As director Anthony Mann said: “Put a toga on him and he looks perfect.” Frank Sinatra once joked: “That guy Heston has to watch it. If he’s not careful, he’ll get actors a good name.”
Between super-spectacles (“The 10 Commandments,” “Ben-Hur”), science fiction movies (“Planet of the Apes,” “Soylent Green”) and disaster epics (“Earthquake”), Heston pushed for screen versions of Shakespearean plays, directing one, “Anthony and Cleopatra.”
Heston’s most controversial role came not in a movie but as president of the National Rifle Association, the gun-rights lobby group, from 1998 to 2003. He made his stance clear when he stood at podium during a convention, holding an antique flintlock rifle above his head and told gun-control advocates they would not get his gun unless they could pry it “from my cold, dead hands.”
“He believed the sanctity of American freedom was defined by the Bill of Rights and the Bill of Rights was what made the United States different from every country in the world,” Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, told CNN.
President George W. Bush said in a statement, “He served his country during World War Two, marched in the civil rights movement, led a labor union, and vigorously defended Americans’ Second Amendment rights. He was a man of character and integrity, with a big heart.”
Nancy Reagan, widow of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who also suffered from Alzheimer’s, said she was heartbroken by Heston’s death.
“He was one of Ronnie’s and my dearest friends,” she said. “He shared a love of radio and acting and politics with Ronnie and I know they had many discussions about each of their terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild.”
Film historian David Thomson said that Heston was, “One of America’s great heroes” in the two decades following World War Two.
“He had the gravitas to play God and God-like figures, which you don’t have among today’s actors,” Thomson said. “When he took the part of Moses, he took it seriously and believed in it and that belief made those films successful in their time. Those were great films of their time.”
Born John Charlton Carter (Heston was his stepfather’s name) on October 4, 1923, in Evanston, Illinois, he made his theatrical debut as Santa Claus in a school play at age 5.
After serving in the Army Air Corps in World War Two, Heston headed to Broadway, where he briefly supported himself with nude modeling between acting jobs.
In 1944, he married fellow Northwestern University drama student Lydia Clarke and their marriage lasted 64 years until his death. They had two children, Fraser Clarke and Holly Ann, and three grandchildren.
After some stage and television roles, Cecil B. DeMille put Heston in “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952) and in 1956 cast him as Moses in “The 10 Commandments,” saying the actor reminded him of Michelangelo’s statue. The $7.5 million epic was the most expensive film up to that time and became the second-biggest money maker of the time, behind “Gone With the Wind.”
In addition to playing Moses, Heston did the voice of God in the film.
He also took roles in Westerns, with a break in 1957 for Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” followed by more epics.
Less successful were his portrayal of John the Baptist in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” about the life of Jesus and that of Michelangelo in “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” a 1965 commercial flop.
Heston was a besieged astronaut in 1968’s “The Planet of the Apes,” which led to more science fiction hits such as “The Omega Man” (1971) and “Soylent Green” (1973). He also was a leading figure in disaster epics, among them “Skyjacked” (1972) and “Airport 1975” (1974).
In 1985, Heston played patriarch Jason Colby in the TV soap opera “Dynasty II: The Colbys of California.”
In the 1950s and 1960s Heston worked in the civil rights movement and he was a six-term president of the Screen Actors Guild.
Heston once campaigned for Democrats — Adlai Stevenson against Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy against Richard Nixon. But he switched to Republican Nixon in 1972 and backed old friend Ronald Reagan in the ex-actor’s quest for the presidency. Thereafter, he was identified with conservative politics and causes.
Heston was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bush in 2003.
(Additional reporting by Bill Trott in Washington)
(Editing by Philip Barbara)
For Heston's main films see PEOPLE-HESTON/MOVIES and key facts in his life see PEOPLE-HESTON/FACTS