Charlton Heston (October 4, 1923 – April 5, 2008) was an American actor of film, theatre and television.
Heston is known for having played heroic roles, such as Moses in The Ten Commandments, Colonel George Taylor in Planet of the Apes, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar in El Cid, and Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. In the 1950s and 1960s he was one of a handful of Hollywood actors to speak openly against racism and was an active supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. Initially a moderate Democrat, he later supported conservative Republican policies and was president of the National Rifle Association from 1998 to 2003.
Heston was born John Charles Carter in No Man's Land, Illinois, an unincorporated area between Evanston and Wilmette, Illinois, the only child of Lilla (née Charlton; 1899–1994) and Russell Whitford Carter (1897–1966), a mill operator. In his autobiography, Heston refers only to his father participating in his family's construction business. Heston was of English and Scottish descent and a member of the Fraser clan.
When Heston was an infant his father's work moved the family to St. Helen, Michigan. It was a rural, heavily forested part of the state and Heston lived an isolated yet idyllic existence spending much time hunting and fishing in the backwoods of the area.
When Heston was 10 years old his parents divorced. Shortly thereafter his mother married Chester Heston. The new family moved to Wilmette, Illinois, a well-off northern suburb of Chicago. Heston (his new surname) attended New Trier High School.
Throughout Heston's life he was known by friends as "Chuck" although his wife always called him "Charlie." His stage name Charlton Heston is drawn from his mother's maiden surname (Charlton) and his stepfather's surname (Heston), and was used for his first film, Peer Gynt.
Heston frequently recounted that, while growing up in northern Michigan in a sparsely-populated area, he often wandered in the forest, "acting" out the characters from books he had read. Later, in high school, Heston enrolled in New Trier's drama program, playing in the silent 16 mm amateur film adaptation of Peer Gynt, from the Ibsen play, by future film activist David Bradley released in 1941. From the Winnetka Community Theatre (Or, the Winnetka Dramatist's Guild as it was then known) in which he was active, he earned a drama scholarship to Northwestern University. Several years later Heston teamed up with Bradley to produce the first sound version of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, in which Heston played Mark Antony.
World War II service
In 1944, Heston enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces. He served for two years as a radio operator and aerial gunner aboard a B-25 Mitchell stationed in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands with the Eleventh Air Force. He reached the rank of Staff Sergeant. Heston married Northwestern University student Lydia Marie Clarke in the same year he joined the military.
Theater and television
After the war, Heston and Clarke lived in Hell's Kitchen, New York City, where they worked as artists' models. Seeking a way to make it in theater, Heston and his wife Lydia decided to manage a playhouse in Asheville, North Carolina in 1947. They made $100 a week on the job. In 1948, they went back to New York where Heston was offered a supporting role in a Broadway revival of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, starring Katharine Cornell. Heston had success in television, playing a number of roles in CBS's Studio One, one of the most popular anthology dramas of the 1950s. Film producer Hal B. Wallis of Casablanca spotted Heston in a 1950 television production of Wuthering Heights and offered him a contract. When his wife reminded Heston they had decided to pursue theater and television, he replied, "Well, maybe just for one film to see what it's like."
Heston's most frequently played roles on stage include the title role in Macbeth, Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, and Mark Antony in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.
Heston earned recognition for his appearance in his first professional movie, Dark City, a 1950 film noir. His breakthrough came when Cecil B. DeMille cast him as a circus manager in The Greatest Show on Earth, which was named by the Motion Picture Academy as the best picture of 1952. In 1953, Heston was Billy Wilder's first choice to play Sefton in Stalag 17. However, the role was given to William Holden, who won an Oscar for it. Heston became an icon for portraying Moses in the hugely successful film The Ten Commandments, reportedly being chosen by director Cecil B. DeMille because he thought the muscular, 6 ft 3 in, square jawed Heston bore an uncanny resemblance to Michelangelo's statue of Moses.
After Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster and Rock Hudson turned down the title role of Ben-Hur (1959), Heston accepted the role, winning the Academy Award for Best Actor, one of the unprecedented eleven Oscars the film earned. In 1995, Heston denied a claim by Ben-Hur screenwriter Gore Vidal that there is a gay subtext to the film. Vidal said he wrote the script with such an implication, but never mentioned the subtext to Heston - though he did so to Stephen Boyd, who played Ben-Hur's friend Messala, and director William Wyler. Heston stated that after writing one scene, Vidal was dismissed from the project and the homosexuality story is a reworking by Vidal of a well-known and possibly apocryphal story involving Laurence Olivier's portrayal of Iago to an unwitting Ralph Richardson as Othello. Vidal responded by citing extracts from Heston's 1978 memoir An Actor's Life, in which he admitted that Vidal had authored most of the shooting screenplay. After Moses and Ben-Hur, Heston was identified with Biblical epics more than any other actor. He voiced the role of a cartoon version of the Lew Wallace novel in 2003.
Heston played leading roles in a number of fictional and historical epics: El Cid (1961), 55 Days at Peking (1963), as Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), and Khartoum (1966). Heston also played a leading role in the western movie, Will Penny (1968).
In 1965, Heston became president of the Screen Actors Guild. He remained in the position until 1971, the second longest tenure to date in that office.
In 1968, Heston starred in Planet of the Apes and in 1970, he was in a smaller supporting role in the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Also in 1970, Heston portrayed Mark Antony again in another film version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. His co-stars included Jason Robards as Brutus, Richard Chamberlain as Octavius, Robert Vaughn as Casca, and English actors Richard Johnson as Cassius, John Gielgud as Caesar, and Diana Rigg as Portia. In 1971 he starred in the science fiction film, The Omega Man. Although critically panned, the film is now considered a classic of apocalyptic horror. In 1972 Heston made his directorial debut, and starred, as Mark Antony in an adaptation of the William Shakespeare play he performed earlier in his theater career, Antony and Cleopatra. Hildegarde Neil was Cleopatra, and English actor Eric Porter was Enobarbus. After receiving scathing reviews, the film never went to theaters, and rarely turns up on television. It has not been released on DVD. He subsequently starred in successful films such as Soylent Green (1973), and Earthquake (1974).
Beginning with playing Cardinal Richelieu in 1973's The Three Musketeers, Heston was seen in an increasing number of supporting roles, cameos and theater. From 1985 to 1987, he starred in his only prime-time stint on series television with the soap, The Colbys. With his son Fraser, he produced and also starred in several TV movies, including remakes of Treasure Island and A Man For All Seasons. In 1992, Heston appeared in a short series of videos on the A&E cable network reading passages from the King James Version of the Bible, called Charlton Heston Presents the Bible. It was filmed in the Middle East and received excellent reviews, achieving great success on video and DVD. Never taking himself too seriously, he appeared in 1993 in a cameo role in Wayne's World 2 (in a scene wherein main character Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) requests that a small role be filled by a better actor). After the scene is reshot with Heston, Campbell weeps in awe. That same year, Heston hosted Saturday Night Live. He had cameos in the films Hamlet, Tombstone and True Lies. He starred in many theatre productions at the Los Angeles Music Center where he appeared in such plays as Detective Story, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, and as Sherlock Holmes in The Crucifer of Blood opposite Jeremy Brett as Dr. Watson, later winning acclaim for his interpretation of the famous detective in a television version. In 2001, Heston made a cameo appearance as an elderly, dying chimpanzee in Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes. Heston's last film role was as the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele in My Father, Rua Alguem 5555, which had limited release (mainly to festivals) in 2003.
Heston played the title role in Mister Roberts three times and cited it as one of his favorite roles. In the early '90s, he tried unsuccessfully to revive and direct the show with Tom Selleck in the title role.
Heston campaigned for Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. Reportedly when an Oklahoma movie theater premiering his movie El Cid was segregated, he joined a picket line outside in 1961. Heston makes no reference to this in his autobiography, but describes traveling to Oklahoma City to picket segregated restaurants, much to the chagrin of Allied Artists, the producers of El Cid. During the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom held in Washington, D.C. in 1963, he accompanied Martin Luther King Jr. In later speeches, Heston said he helped the civil rights cause "long before Hollywood found it fashionable."
Following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, Heston and actors Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas and James Stewart issued a statement calling for support of President Johnson's Gun Control Act of 1968. He opposed the Vietnam War and in 1969 was approached by the Democratic Party to run for the U.S. Senate. He agonized over the decision and ultimately determined he could never give up acting. He is reported to have voted for Richard Nixon in 1972, though Nixon is unmentioned in his autobiography.
By the 1980s, Heston opposed affirmative action, supported gun rights and changed his political affiliation from Democratic to Republican. When asked why he changed political alliances, Heston replied "I didn't change. The Democratic party changed." He campaigned for Republicans and Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.
Heston 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 said CNN's telecasts from Baghdad were "sowing doubts" about the allied effort in the 1990-91 Gulf War.
At a Time Warner stockholders meeting, Heston castigated the company for releasing an Ice-T album which included the song "Cop Killer", which depicted the killing of police officers.
While filming The Savage, Heston was initiated by blood into the Miniconjou Lakota Nation, but claimed no natural American Indian heritage. He claimed to be "native American" to reclaim the term from exclusion to American Indians.
In a 1997 speech, Heston rhetorically deplored a culture war he said was being conducted by a generation of media, educators, entertainers, and politicians against:
"...the God fearing, law-abiding, Caucasian, middle-class Protestant-or even worse, evangelical Christian, Midwestern or Southern- or even worse, rural, apparently straight-or even worse, admitted heterosexuals, gun-owning-or even worse, NRA-card-carrying, average working stiff-or even worse, male working stiff-because, not only don’t you count, you are a down-right obstacle to social progress. Your voice deserves a lower decibel level, your opinion is less enlightened, your media access is insignificant, and frankly, mister, you need to wake up, wise up, and learn a little something from your new-America and until you do, would you mind shutting up?"
In an address to students at Harvard Law School entitled Winning the Cultural War, Heston said, "If Americans believed in political correctness, we'd still be King George's boys - subjects bound to the British crown." He went on:
"The Constitution was handed down to guide us by a bunch of wise old dead white guys who invented our country! Now some flinch when I say that. Why! Its true-they were white guys! So were most of the guys that died in Lincoln's name opposing slavery in the 1860s. So why should I be ashamed of white guys? Why is "Hispanic Pride" or "Black Pride" a good thing, while "White Pride" conjures shaven heads and white hoods? Why was the Million Man March on Washington celebrated by many as progress, while the Promise Keepers March on Washington was greeted with suspicion and ridicule? I’ll tell you why, Cultural warfare!"
Heston later stated, "Political correctness is tyranny with manners."
In a speech to the National Press Club in 1997, Heston said, "Now, I doubt any of you would prefer a rolled up newspaper as a weapon against a dictator or a criminal intruder."
Heston was the president and spokesman of the NRA from 1998 until he resigned in 2003. At the 2000 NRA convention, he raised a rifle over his head and declared that a potential Al Gore administration would take away his Second Amendment rights "from my cold, dead hands." In announcing his resignation in 2003, he again raised a rifle over his head, repeating the five famous words of his 2000 speech. He was an honorary life member.
In the 2002 film Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore interviewed Heston in his home, asking him about an April 1999 NRA meeting held shortly after the Columbine high school massacre, in Denver, Colorado. Moore criticized Heston for the perceived thoughtlessness in the timing and location of the meeting. Heston, on-camera, excused himself and walked out. Moore was later criticized for his perceived ambush.
Actor George Clooney joked about Heston's failing health at a 2003 National Board of Review award ceremony, saying that Heston "announced again today that he is suffering from Alzheimer's." When questioned, Clooney said Heston deserved whatever was said about him for his involvement with the NRA. Heston responded by saying Clooney lacked class, and said he felt sorry for Clooney, as Clooney had as much of a chance of developing Alzheimer's as anyone else.
Heston opposed abortion and gave the introduction to a 1987 pro-life documentary by Bernard Nathanson called Eclipse of Reason which focuses on late-term abortions. Heston served on the Advisory Board of Accuracy in Media, a conservative media watchdog group founded by Reed Irvine.
Later life and death
In 1996, Heston had a hip replacement. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1998. Following a course of radiation treatment, the cancer went into remission. In 2000, he publicly disclosed that he had been treated for alcoholism at a Utah clinic in May-June of that year. On August 9, 2002, Heston publicly announced he was diagnosed with symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease. In July 2003, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House from President George W. Bush. In March 2005, various newspapers reported that family and friends were shocked by the progression of his illness, and that he was sometimes unable to get out of bed. In August 2005, it was reported that Heston was hospitalized at a Los Angeles hospital with pneumonia, but this was never confirmed by his family or spokesman. In April 2006, various news sources reported that Heston's illness was at an advanced stage and that his family was worried he might not survive the year. In March 2008, just a few weeks before his death, it was reported that he was now in the final stages of Alzheimer's.
Heston died on Saturday, April 5, 2008, at his home in Beverly Hills, California, with Lydia, his wife of 64 years, by his side. He was also survived by his son, Fraser Clarke Heston, and adopted daughter, Holly Ann Heston. The cause of death was pneumonia. Heston's family released a statement, reading, "Charlton Heston was seen by the world as larger than life. He was known for his chiselled jaw, broad shoulders and resonating voice, and, of course, for the roles he played. 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." Early tributes came in from leading figures; President George W. Bush called Heston "a man of character and integrity, with a big heart", adding, "He served his country during World War II, marched in the civil rights movement, led a labor union and vigorously defended Americans’ Second Amendment rights to bear arms." Former First Lady Nancy Reagan said that she was "heartbroken" over Heston's death and released a statement, reading, "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."
Heston's funeral was held a week later on April 12, 2008, in a ceremony which was attended by 250 people including Nancy Reagan and Hollywood stars such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olivia de Havilland, Keith Carradine, Pat Boone, Tom Selleck, Oliver Stone, Rob Reiner, and Christian Bale. The funeral was held at Episcopal Parish of St. Matthew's Church in Pacific Palisades, California, the church where Heston regularly worshipped and attended Sunday services since the early 1980s. He was cremated and his ashes were given to his family.
Richard Corliss wrote in Time magazine, "From start to finish, Heston was a grand, ornery anachronism, the sinewy symbol of a time when Hollywood took itself seriously, when heroes came from history books, not comic books. Epics like Ben-Hur or El Cid simply couldn't be made today, in part because popular culture has changed as much as political fashion. But mainly because there's no one remotely like Charlton Heston to infuse the form with his stature, fire and guts."
Heston's cinematic legacy was the subject of Cinematic Atlas: The Triumphs of Charlton Heston, an eleven-film retrospective by the Film Society of the Lincoln Center that was shown at the Walter Reade Theater from August 29 to September 4, 2008.
Photograph is from the 1976 movie, Midway and was Hand Oil Tinted by artist Margaret A. Rogers.