Nancy Reagan was heartbroken over Charlton Heston’s death. President Bush hailed him as a “strong advocate for liberty,” while John McCain called Heston a devotee for civil and constitutional rights.
Even Michael Moore, who mocked Heston in his gun-control documentary “Bowling for Columbine,” posted the actor’s picture on his Web site to mark his passing.
Heston, who died Saturday night at 84, was a towering figure both in his politics and on screen, where his characters had the ear of God (Moses in “The Ten Commandments”), survived apocalyptic plagues (“The Omega Man”) and endured one of Hollywood’s most-grueling action sequences (the chariot race in “Ben-Hur,” which earned him the best-actor Academy Award).
Better known in recent years as a fierce gun-rights advocate who headed the National Rifle Association, Heston played legendary leaders and ordinary men hurled into heroic struggles.
“In taking on epic and commanding roles, he showed himself to be one of our nation’s most gifted actors, and his legacy will forever be a part of our cinema,” Republican presidential candidate McCain said in a statement that also noted Heston’s involvement in the civil-rights movement and his stand against gun control.
‘Larger than life’
Heston’s jutting jaw, regal bearing and booming voice served him well as Marc Antony in “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra,” Michelangelo in “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” John the Baptist in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and an astronaut on a topsy-turvy world where simians rule in “Planet of the Apes.”
“Charlton Heston was seen by the world as larger than life,” Heston’s family said in a statement. “We knew him as an adoring husband, a kind and devoted father, and a gentle grandfather with an infectious sense of humor. He served these far greater roles with tremendous faith, courage and dignity.”
The actor died at his home in Beverly Hills with his wife, Lydia, at his side, family spokesman Bill Powers said. He declined to comment on the cause of death or provide further details Sunday.
One of the biggest box-office draws of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Heston’s work dwindled largely to small parts and narration and other voice roles from the 1980s on, including an uncredited cameo as an ape in Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of “Planet of the Apes.”
Shirley Jones, who co-starred with Heston in one of his last leading roles in the 1999 drama “Gideon,” said his talent as an actor sometimes is forgotten because of the epic characters he played.
“To me, he was the consummate leading man. He was tall, he was handsome, he was sensitive, he was gruff when he had to be. He was a great cowboy, he was perfect for those historical roles,” Jones said. “He could do everything, and there aren’t many actors around today who could.”
In 2002, near the end of his five years as president of the NRA, Heston disclosed he had symptoms consistent with Alzheimer’s disease.
The disclosure was soon followed by an unflattering appearance in Moore’s 2003 best documentary winner “Bowling for Columbine,” which took America to task for its gun laws.
Moore used a clip of Heston holding aloft a rifle at an NRA rally and proclaiming “from my cold, dead hands.” The director flustered the actor in an interview later in the film by pressing him on his gun-control stance. Heston eventually walked out on Moore.
Moore’s Web site, www.michaelmoore.com, on Sunday featured a photo of Heston, the date of his birth and death and a note from the actor’s family requesting that donations be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund in lieu of flowers.
There was no other reaction on the site from Moore about Heston’s death. Moore did not immediately respond to e-mail and phone requests seeking comment.
‘He believed the Constitution’
Jones, who worked with Heston on “Gideon” near the beginning of his tenure as NRA president, said she discussed gun control with him and came to respect his stand, even though she disagreed with it. She said he told her his family grew up poor in the country and “had to go out and kill a deer if we wanted meat.”
“He was a caring, sweet gentleman who believed in his country,” Jones said. “He believed the Constitution said it’s OK, we have to defend ourselves.”
Like fellow conservative Ronald Reagan, Heston served as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Former first lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement that she was heartbroken to hear of his death.
“He was one of Ronnie’s and my dearest friends,” she said. “I will never forget Chuck as a hero on the big screen in the roles he played, but more importantly I considered him a hero in life for the many times that he stepped up to support Ronnie in whatever he was doing.”
Bush — who in 2003 presented Heston the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor — called Heston a “man of character and integrity, with a big heart.”
Decades before his NRA leadership, Heston was a strong advocate for civil rights in the 1960s, joining marches and offering financial assistance.
Civil-rights leaders in Los Angeles held a moment of silence in Heston’s memory Sunday after an unrelated news conference.
Heston had contributed and raised thousands of dollars in Hollywood for Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement, said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Round Table.
“We certainly disagree with his position as NRA head and also his firm, firm, unwavering support of the unlimited right to bear arms,” Hutchinson said. But, he added, “Charlton Heston was a complex individual. He lived a long time, and certainly, there were many phases. The phases we prefer to remember were certainly his contributions to Dr. King and civil rights.”
Fans remember Heston for some of the most epic moments on film: Parting the Red Sea as Moses in “The Ten Commandments,” cursing his self-destructive species as he stumbles on the remnants of the Statue of Liberty in “Planet of the Apes,” tearing hell-bent through the chariot race in “Ben-Hur.”
“Ben-Hur” earned 11 Oscars, the most ever until 1997’s “Titanic” and 2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” tied it.
Born Charles Carter in a Chicago suburb on Oct. 4, 1923, Heston grew up in the Michigan wilderness, where his father operated a lumber mill.
Heston took up acting after serving in the Army during World War II. He took his professional name from his mother’s maiden name, Charlton, and the last name of his stepfather, Chester Heston, whom she married after his parents’ divorce.
After his movie debut in two independent films by a college classmate, Heston was put under contract by producer Hal B. Wallis (“Casablanca”). Cecil B. DeMille cast him as the circus manager in “The Greatest Show on Earth” and then as Moses in “The Ten Commandments.”
He followed with Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” William Wyler’s “The Big Country” and the sea saga “The Wreck of the Mary Deare” before “Ben-Hur” elevated Heston to the top of Hollywood’s A-list.
Drawing publicity for crusades
In recent years, Heston drew as much publicity for his crusades as for his performances. In addition to his NRA work, he campaigned for Republican presidential and congressional candidates and against affirmative action.
He resigned from Actors Equity, claiming the union’s refusal to allow a white actor to play a Eurasian role in “Miss Saigon” was “obscenely racist.” He attacked CNN’s telecasts from Baghdad as “sowing doubts” about the allied effort in the 1990-91 Gulf War.
Heston also feuded with liberal Edward Asner, one of his successors as Screen Actors Guild president. In a statement Sunday, Asner said Heston “was a worthy opponent and certainly helped create work for a lot of actors.”
When Heston stepped down as NRA president, he told members his time in office was “quite a ride. ... I loved every minute of it.”
Heston and his wife had a daughter, Holly Ann, and a son, Fraser Clarke, who played the infant Moses in “The Ten Commandments.”
In the 1990s, Heston’s son directed his father in several TV and big-screen films, including “Treasure Island” and “Alaska.”
The Hestons celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 1994 at a party with Hollywood and political friends. They had been married 64 years when he died.