In a long career, Heston was known for playing heroic roles, such as Harry Steele in Secret of the Incas , Moses in The Ten Commandments, Colonel George Taylor in Planet of the Apes and Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur. Early in his career, he was one of a handful of Hollywood stars to publicly speak out against racism and was active in the civil rights movement. During the latter part of his movie career, he starred in films such as The Omega Man and Soylent Green that had a strong environmental message. He was president of the National Rifle Association from 1998 to 2003.
Heston was born on October 4, 1924, in Evanston, Illinois, and his original name was John Charlton Carter.
He was renowned for his chiseled features and compelling speaking voice and for his numerous roles as historical figures and famous literary characters.
“I have a face that belongs in another century,” he often remarked.
Ben Hur won 11 Academy Awards, tying it for the record with the more recent Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).
Heston liked to cite the number of historical figures he had portrayed: Andrew Jackson (`The President’s Lady, The Buccaneer), Moses (The Ten Commandments), title role of El Cid, John the Baptist (The Greatest Story Ever Told, Michelangelo (The Agony and the Ecstasy), General Gordon (Khartoum‘), Marc Antony (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra), Cardinal Richelieu (The Three Musketeers), Henry VIII (The Prince and the Pauper).
Heston decided to become an actor after impulsively auditioning for a high-school play. His stage experience in high school resulted in a scholarship to Northwestern University.
After serving in the United States Air Force (1944-1947), he went into theatre and radio, making his Broadway stage debut in Antony and Cleopatra in 1947. He also performed on television in the late 1940s, making notable appearances in televised productions of Julius Caesar, Wuthering Heights (1950), and The Taming of the Shrew.
Heston made his movie debut in the 1940s in two independent films by a college classmate, David Bradley, who later became a noted film archivist.
He had the title role in Peer Gynt in 1942 and was Marc Antony in Bradley’s 1949 version of Julius Caesar, for which Heston was paid $50 a week.
Film producer Hal B. Wallis (Casablanca) spotted Heston in Wuthering Heights and offered him a contract.
When his wife reminded him that they had decided to pursue theatre and television, he replied, “Well, maybe just for one film to see what it’s like”.
Heston made his Hollywood film debut with star billing as a tormented, cynical young man in Dark City (1950), a crime thriller, and then gained wide commercial and critical success with a role as the circus manager in the all-star The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), by American director Cecil B. DeMille.
The Greatest Show On Earth was named by the Motion Picture Academy as the best picture of 1952.
In the 1950s and 1960s Heston achieved tremendous fame by playing larger-than-life roles in historical epics that featured his rugged resolve and commanding physical presence, including The President’s Lady (1953), DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben Hur (1959), El Cid (1961), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). In 1959 he won an Academy Award for best actor for his performance in Ben Hur.
During this period Heston also starred in several films made on a more modest scale, including Touch of Evil (1958), 55 Days at Peking (1963), and Major Dundee (1965).
In the late 1960s and early 1970s he adapted his powerful screen presence to star in several science-fiction and disaster films, such as Planet of the Apes (1968), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), The Omega Man (1971), Soylent Green (1973), Earthquake (1974), and Airport 1975 (1974). Most of his later roles are as indomitable authority figures in war sagas and Westerns.
Heston also directed Mother Lode (1982) and A Man for All Seasons (1988), a film he made for television.
An influential member of the Hollywood film community, Heston served six terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild, from 1966 to 1971. He also became an outspoken supporter for a number of conservative political causes.
In 1998 Heston was elected president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), becoming a popular symbol for the pro-gun political lobby, for which he had posed for ads holding a rifle.
He delivered a jab at then-President Bill Clinton, saying, “America doesn’t trust you with our 21-year-old daughters, and we sure, Lord, don’t trust you with our guns.”
Heston stepped down as NRA president in April 2003, telling members his five years in office were “quite a ride. … I loved every minute of it”.
That same year, Heston was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honour.
“The largeness of character that comes across the screen has also been seen throughout his life,” President George W. Bush said at the time.
Heston died on April 5, 2008 at his home in Beverly Hills, California with Lydia, his wife of 64 years by his side. Heston was 83. Heston had been given the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2002