Actor Charlton Heston dies at 84


RELATED: Remembering Mr. Heston

CORRECTED 10:31 a.m. PT April 6, 2008

UPDATED 6:34 p.m. PT April 6, 2008

Charlton Heston, whose chiseled-granite looks and commanding manner allowed him to portray some of history's most extraordinary men from Moses and Michelangelo to John the Baptist and El Cid, has died. He was 84.

The actor, who won an Oscar for the title role in 1959's "Ben-Hur," died Saturday night at his home in Beverly Hills with his wife Lydia at his side, said family spokesman Bill Powers, who declined to comment on the cause of death.

In 2002, Heston revealed in a videotaped statement that he had symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease. Saying, "I must reconcile courage and surrender in equal measure," he began to exit the public stage, where he was known for his work with SAG and the American Film Institute as well as for political activism that saw him take up causes that ranged from civil rights to gun ownership.

Heston's towering presence was tailor-made for the wide-screen epics of the 1950s and '60s, when he starred in such films as "The Ten Commandments," "El Cid," "55 Days at Peking," "The Agony and the Ecstasy" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told." "I have a face that belongs in another century," he often remarked.

In the '70s, his lent his heroic demeanor to such disaster movies as "Earthquake" and "Airport '75" and such sci-fi films as "Soylent Green" and "Planet of the Apes," in which he delivered such memorable lines as "Soylent Green is people!" and "Damn you. Damn you all!"

But Heston's first film was actually an indie, an adaptation of "Peer Gynt" that he filmed while a student at Northwestern University in the early '40s. Among his more than 100 film and television appearances, he also took detours into such fare as Orson Welles' 1958 film noir "Touch of Evil," Richard Lester's 1973 comic romp "The Three Musketeers" and, spoofing himself, in 1993's "Wayne's World 2."

Producer Hal B. Wallis, spotting Heston in a 1950 television production of "Wuthering Heights," gave the young actor his first professional movie role in the crime drama "Dark City," which led Cecil B. DeMille to cast him as the circus manager in "The Greatest Show on Earth," which won the Oscar for best picture of 1952.

Playing cardinals, presidents, geniuses, tyrants and others of power and stature, Heston came to embody a heroic dimension. He performed in nearly every genre, from Biblical spectacles to Westerns, historical period pieces and war stories. His final screen appearances included a crazed, gun-toting dad in 2001's "Town & Country"; a cameo as a dying chimpanzee in Tim Burton's 2001 remake of "Planet of the Apes"; and the international co-production "My Father, Rua Alguem 5555," in which he played Dr. Josef Mengele, which played the festival circuit beginning in 2003.

A man of civic responsibility and far-ranging interests, Heston was awarded the Academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1978. He served on the National Council of the Arts from 1966-1971 and co-chaired the White House Task Force on the Arts and Humanities.

He long devoted his beneficent energies to AFI, serving as chairman of its board of trustees from 1971-1982 and as president from 1983-2002. In 2003, the AFI established the Charlton Heston Award to recognize contributions to film and television, presenting the inaugural honor to Jack Valenti.

Heston also served six terms as president of SAG from 1965-1971 and later served on its board of governors.

"He was an actor of astonishing talent, a capable and visionary union leader and, above all, a man of dignity and grace." the guild said in statement issued Sunday. "He will be missed by many people across the world, but by none more so than the members and staff of Screen Actors Guild who were honored to have served with him. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Lydia and his family."

Having campaigned for Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and John F. Kennedy in 1960, Heston was actively involved in the civil rights movement, taking part in Dr. Martin Luther King's 1963 civil rights march in Washington.

By the '80s he took up conservative causes and became a supporter of Ronald Reagan. In June 1998, he was elected president of the National Rifle Assn., a post he held until 2003, earning him both praise and castigation, especially among his Hollywood peers. At the NRA's 2000 convention, raising a flintlock rifle over his head, he delivered a line that seemed to come straight out of one of his films, saying that then-presidential candidate Al Gore would take away his Second Amendment rights only "from my cold, dead hands."

In 2003, 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.

Born John Charles Carter on Oct. 4, 1923, in Evanston, Ill., Heston grew up in the tiny north-wood hamlet of St. Helen, Mich., where his father was a mill operator. The community numbered only 100, and the Hestons lived on the outreaches of town. To amuse himself, the young boy acted out stories that his father read to him. Fortunately for his artistic development, the Heston family moved to Winnetka, Ill., where he attended New Trier High School, excelling in theater, before moving on to Northwestern, where he played in many student stage productions and met Lydia Clarke, whom he was to marry.

After graduation from Northwestern, Heston enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces, serving three years in the Aleutians, mainly as a radio operator. After his discharge, the Hestons moved to New York, where his wife took up modeling to support them while Heston made the acting rounds. Both were finally hired as co-directors at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Theatre in Asheville, N.C., putting on six plays before returning to New York. Heston made his Broadway debut in "Antony and Cleopatra," performing a number of roles during a long run.

He parlayed his Broadway work into the new medium of television, playing leads in "Studio One" productions, among others.

Throughout his multifaceted career, Heston periodically returned to the stage. He starred as Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons" in Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami. Also active in Los Angeles theater, he starred in the early '70s in "The Crucible" at the Ahmanson Theatre, where he also played in "Macbeth" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

Heston also was an avid artist; his pen-and-ink sketches have been exhibited in numerous galleries worldwide. In addition, he kept personal journals, beginning in 1956, eventually compiling them in book form as "The Actor's Life," which became a national best-seller. He penned subsequent biographies, "In the Arena" and "To Be a Man."

Heston is survived by his wife, Lydia; son Fraser Clarke Heston; daughter Holly Heston Rochell; and three grandchildren.

The Associated Press contributed to this report