Actor, Activist Charlton Heston Dies

WASHINGTON -- Oscar-winning U.S. actor Charlton Heston, whose chiseled features and commanding presence won him epic roles from Moses to Michelangelo, died on Saturday night at the age of 84, his family said.

Heston, a former president of the influential National Rifle Association lobbying group, died at his home in Beverly Hills with his wife Lydia at his side, the family said in a statement.

The actor, 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.

The family said a private memorial service would be held.

In his 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 superspectacles ("The 10 Commandments," "Ben Hur"), science-fiction movies ("Planet of the Apes,") and disaster epics ('Earthquake"), Heston pushed for screen versions of Shakespearean plays, directing one, "Anthony and Cleopatra."

Heston's most controversial role was not in a movie but as leader of the National Rifle Association, the gun-rights lobby group, from 1998 to 2003. He often stood at the podium at conventions, holding an antique flintlock rifle above his head and telling gun-control advocates that they will only get his gun if they pry it "from my cold, dead hands."

"They don't make them like that any more," Steven Gaydos, executive editor of Variety Magazine, told BBC television after his death. "People in Hollywood, even if they didn't agree with his politics, respected the guy," he added.

Born John Charlton Carter (Heston was his stepfather's name) on Oct. 4, 1923, in Evanston, Illinois, he made his theatrical debut as Santa Claus in a school play at age 5 and studied acting at Northwestern University.

After a World War II stint as a gunner in the Army Air Corps, Heston headed to Broadway, where he briefly supported himself with nude modeling between acting jobs.

In 1944, he had married fellow Northwestern 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 Jack Alexander, Ridley and Charlie.

In 1956, Cecil B. DeMille cast Heston as Moses for "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 the 1960s Heston was involved in the civil rights movement. He served six terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild and in 1987, 16 years after leaving the SAG job, locked horns with SAG President Ed Asner over the guild's left-leaning stance.

He 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.

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2003.