Charlton Heston: as you won't remember him

Charlton Heston, who has died at the age of 83, became known for his reactionary views on gun ownership as much as his film roles. But it wasn't always that way

The actor Charlton Heston, who died on Saturday night, aged 83, was described as being like a "rugged American frontiersman". He took on some of the most famous roles in Hollywood. He dipped into the world of soap. And then he championed the right to bear arms.

Lydia, to whom he was married for 64 years, was at his bedside when he died. A family spokesman did not disclose the cause of death.

In 1999, Heston, whose film roles included Ben-Hur, Moses and Michelangelo, revealed that he was receiving radiation treatment for prostate cancer. The disease went into remission, but in 2002, he announced that he had symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease, saying: "I must reconcile courage and surrender in equal measure."

A family statement yesterday said: "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."

Yet Heston's role was as much political as it was theatrical. In America, the career path from silver screen to public office has been well-trodden. It is not even necessary to be a particularly good actor in the first place to succeed in American politics, as Ronald Reagan showed the world. But if you happen to be a rugged, handsome performer who has done a convincing turn as Moses, a political career is practically yours for the asking.

Charlton Heston, therefore, could easily have been Senator Heston, or Governor Heston. Instead most of the British population is too young to remember him in any political capacity other than as president of the National Rifle Association, a part he accepted when he was well into his seventies.

Perhaps the film in which the largest number of people in the UK now remember seeing him was Michael Moore's polemic against American gun culture, Bowling for Columbine, in which Heston was lured into playing a cameo as a rich, foolish old voice of reaction.

He clearly had no idea what kind of film Moore was making when he allowed the camera crew to interview him. As the truth dawned, he abruptly turned them out. The last shot was of him walking back into his sprawling Hollywood house, like an old man retreating into his money to escape a world he had ceased to understand.

A shame, because there was once a younger Charlton Heston who threw his fame and good looks behind the civil rights movement, and other causes that required courage and conviction. There was even a time when he believed in gun control.

The first political campaign he is known to have supported was Adlai Stevenson's doomed run for the White House in 1956. President Eisenhower was the nearest real-life equivalent to a Charlton Heston part, but the actor went out campaigning to remove the general from the White House. Part of his motivation was his opposition at the anti-Communist witch-hunt launched by the Republican senator Joe McCarthy. Four years later, Heston at least had the satisfaction of being on the winning side when he backed John F Kennedy for the presidency. In 1963, he joined a civil rights march on Washington, and stood with Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the US capital. He called King a "20th century Moses".

On screen, by this time Heston's roles had propelled him towards iconic status. Standing six foot, three inches high, he was the epitome of the masculine Hollywood actor, baring his chest for many of his parts.

His big break had come when he was spotted by the director Cecil B DeMille, who cast him first as the circus manager in his 1952 film The Greatest Show on Earth, which won an Academy Award for best picture. DeMille saw a resemblance between the young actor and Michelangelo's sculpture of Moses and went on to cast Heston as the biblical leader in his 1956 epic The Ten Commandments.

Some three decades later, The New York Times critic Vincent Canby described Heston's characterisation of Moses as containing more than a touch of "the rugged American frontiersman of myth".

But it was William Wyler's 1959 classic Ben-Hur, about a prince of ancient Judea who rebels against the Roman empire, which sealed Heston's reputation, turning him into one of Hollywood's highest-paid stars.

Displaying a devotion to the characters he played, which was evident throughout his career, Heston spent weeks learning how to drive a chariot for the famous race scene. Ben-Hur went on to scoop 11 Academy Awards, including best actor for Heston. Yet driving a chariot was never going to be enough for Heston. A youth of movement, adventure and uncertainty had given him an interest in the wider issues of his time.

Charlton Heston was born John Charles Carter in Evanston, Illinois, on 4 October 1924. When he was a small boy, his parents moved to rural Michigan, where he learnt to fish and hunt. His parents divorced and his mother remarried – moving the family to the Chicago suburb of Winnetka. Here, Heston – his stage name was a combination of his mother's maiden name and his stepfather's surname – became involved in high school plays, which led on to an acting scholarship at Northwestern University.

At Northwestern, Heston met and married a fellow drama student, Lydia Clarke. After a three-year stint in the US Army Air Force, Heston moved with his wife to New York, where the couple worked as models.

His first significant acting job came in 1947, in a Broadway production of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. In 1950, Heston made his film debut in Hal B Wallis's thriller Dark City.

In the course of a 60-year acting career, Heston made some 100 films, playing parts including Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, the seventh US president, Cardinal Richelieu, Thomas More, John the Baptist and Mark Antony (twice).

His best-known films include the Orson Welles thriller Touch of Evil (1958), El Cid (1961), in which he starred opposite Sophia Loren, Carol Reed's 1965 film The Agony and the Ecstasy, in which he played Michelangelo to Rex Harrison's Pope Julius II, and The Planet of the Apes (1968).

The critics were not always kind. After his 1974 film Earthquake, the late Pauline Kael said: "He's not a bad actor, but he's humourlessly unresilient. He underacts grimly and he turns into a stereotype of himself."

From 1966 to 1971, he was president of the Screen Actors' Guild, following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan. He opposed the Vietnam War, but went out to entertain the GIs there. He thought that Richard Nixon was a disaster for America.

But as his 50th birthday approached, a change came over Heston's screen career – and, following on quickly, his politics. The roles as a leading man dried up and he had to settle for supporting parts, even playing a bad guy for the first time, when he appeared as Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers. And there was the Dynasty spin-off, The Colbys.

He also watched from a distance as his friend Ronald Reagan carved out a political career in the Republican Party. In 1981, Reagan offered him a job as co-chairman of the President's task force on arts and humanities, which he accepted with some reservations.

Then in 1987, Reagan nominated a conservative legal scholar, Robert Bork, to the Supreme Court. Senator Edward Kennedy reacted with a speech that warned: "Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions [and] blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters." Gregory Peck fronted a successful campaign to block the nomination.

In his younger days, Heston might have been there campaigning with them. Instead, he reacted to this public humiliation of President Reagan as if his own face had been slapped, and joined the Republican Party. Heston felt he was still battling for civil liberties, except that now he was standing up for the liberty of the average white middle-class American male against the spread of "political correctness".

It was also clear that, in Heston's mind at least, the very fact that he had spent his life bringing heroes to the screen such as Moses or Ben-Hur, or geniuses such as Michelangelo, gave him political authority.

A famous speech that he delivered to the Harvard Law School in February 1999, a cry of rage against gun control, gay rights, violent lyrics in rap music and other Heston bugbears, opened with the observation: "If my creator gave me the gift to connect you with the hearts and minds of those great men, then I want to use that same gift now to reconnect you with your own sense of liberty, your own freedom of thought, your own compass for what is right."

First elected chairman of the National Rifle Association in 1997, Heston was re-elected for an unprecedented fourth term in 2001. He electrified that year's annual NRA conference by holding a 230-year-old musket over his head and exclaiming: "I have only five words for you: From my cold, dead hands." And while the actor carried off some of the grandest roles in cinematic history, it is that side of the man that many people will remember.