Charlton Heston: Iconic film actor who played Moses in 'The Ten Commandments' and won an Oscar for 'Ben-Hur'

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Charlton Heston was one of the iconic film stars of the 20th century, a tall, rugged actor with patrician features who became associated with epic spectacles in which he played historical or biblical figures of influence and authority. He was Moses in The Ten Commandments, won an Oscar for the title role in Ben-Hur, and also played El Cid, John the Baptist, Michelangelo, General Gordon and Mark Antony. He did notable work too in such thrillers as the films noirs Dark City and Touch of Evil, the western Will Penny and the cult sci-fi movies Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man.

Though many people were alienated by his right-wing politics and wholehearted embrace of the gun culture, his professionalism and dedication to his craft were duly acknowleged. In 1991 he was able to tell a journalist, "I have never missed a day's shooting or a day's rehearsal, or a performance on stage, a fact which I happen to be very proud of". Ever one of his own toughest critics, he commented, "You can spend a lifetime, and, if you're honest with yourself, never once was your work perfect." One of his last screen appearance, in Michael Moore's searing documentary Bowling for Columbine (2002), showed an ailing Heston, in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, defending his point of view regarding man's "God-given right" to own guns.

He was born Charles Carter (Charlton was his mother's maiden name, Heston his stepfather's surname) in Evanston, Illinois, in 1923, but he was raised in the small town of St Helen (population 120) in Michigan timber country: "I recall a one-room school with 13 pupils in eight grades, three of whom were my cousins." He appeared in a school play at the age of five, and later said, 'I can't remember a time when I did not want to be an actor.'

After graduating from New Trier High School, he enrolled at Northwestern University on an acting scholarship, to study speech and drama. He starred in a student production of Peer Gynt in 1942 (filmed in 16mm), and acted on radio in Chicago prior to serving three years with the air force as a radio operator on B-52 bombers. After the Second World War he and his wife Lydia Clark, whom he had met at university and married in 1944, acted and directed at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Theater in Asheville, North Carolina.

He then moved to New York where he worked as a model while making the rounds of casting agents. Hired by the actress Katharine Cornell as part of her company, he made his Broadway début in her production of Antony and Cleopatra (1947). "I'm sure I got the job because I'm over six feet," he said. "Miss Cornell is a tall woman and likes tall actors around." During the play's run, he appeared in several "live" dramas on the prestigious television series Studio One. The film producer Hal Wallis was impressed by his performance in "Jane Eyre" for the series and signed him to a contract. He made his professional film début starring in Wallis' Dark City (1950), as a gambler who finds himself stalked by the brother of a man who committed suicide after losing at cards. In a role not entirely likeable, Heston exhibited charisma and elicited sympathy.

With his muscular build, granite-like jaw and commanding physical presence, he bore some resemblance to another Wallis contractee, Burt Lancaster, and Heston's early roles were those of tough, unpretentious heroes. His second film was Cecil B. DeMille's Oscar-winning circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Heston played the circus master, and later commented, "A lady wrote a letter to DeMille which said, 'I thought the circus master fitted in very well with the real actors'. I've always said that was the best review I ever had."

He had his first biographical role when he played Andrew Jackson in The President's Lady (1953), though the film centred on Jackson's backwoods-born wife, played by Susan Hayward. It was the first film in which Heston made a conscious attempt to capture the regional dialect appropriate for the role, something he would continue to do for the rest of his career. "I've never understood why so few American actors even try to learn the right accent for a part,' he said.

There are at least twenty regional accents in this country, sometimes varying in different centuries. Off the top of my head, I believe only Marlon Brando and Meryl Streep, among major actors, also undertake this preparation for a part.

Heston made 10 films in the three years after The Greatest Show on Earth, including some routine westerns and soap operas, but his noble bearing, strong-jawed bone structure and his natural bent for conveying integrity and dignity were soon noted, and after Andrew Jackson producers began casting him as other stalwart, real-life heroes. He was Buffalo Bill Cody in Pony Express (1953) and he portrayed Bill Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition in The Far Horizons (1955).

In 1956 he was cast by Cecil B. DeMille as Moses in The Ten Commandments. Heston projected the required gravitas as the Red Sea-parting hero, and his was also the voice of God in the "Burning Bush" sequence. (His son Fraser, born during the film's shooting, played Moses at the age of three months.) The film was an enormous hit, one of the screen's top moneymakers, and it gave Heston the first of several roles with which he would always be identified.

Drawn back to the stage, he starred with his wife in a tour of Detective Story in 1956, followed by a New York City Center revival of Mr Roberts. "Theatre is the medium where I started my career," he said. "It's the medium I was trained for. Fortunately, when I came into movies, I came in with an independent contract that let me do what I wanted. And I've always done that." In January 1958 he starred with Claire Bloom in his final live televison play, a highly regarded version of Beauty and the Beast.

It was closely followed by the release of one of his finest films, Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958), a box-office failure at the time but since recognised as a classic. It was Heston who persuaded the production company Universal to let Welles direct the film.

When I first saw the script Welles wasn't attached to it and it was an ineffectively written police story. So I said, "Who do you have to direct?" and they said, "We haven't decided on a director yet but we have Orson Welles to play the heavy." "Why don't you let him direct? He's a pretty good director." And you'd think that I had suggested my mother to direct it. Fortunately, they finally gave it to him . . . I was by that time in a position to exert certain leverage. I was at a point where my views on who was going to direct the picture had to be taken into account.

Moody and off-beat, the film perplexed audiences at the time and even Heston later confessed that he was initially disappointed. "Certainly it was a little experimental for the Fifties."

Heston's role in William Wyler's epic western The Big Country (1958) was secondary to the top-billed star, Gregory Peck, and seemed not to befit his star status, but he was pursuaded by his agent to accept it for the opportunity of working with Wyler.

When Ben-Hur was in its planning stage, MGM offered Heston the role of Messala, but his earlier work with Wyler paid off when the director selected him to instead play the title role. Wyler later told him that he had made up his mind on the casting while they were still shooting The Big Country. Heston cautiously wrote in his diary, "I hesitate to go on record about another mammoth undertaking, after Ten Commandments failed to throw me to the top, but this surely won't hurt me."

An accurate prediction, for Ben-Hur swept the 1960 Oscars, its 11 awards including Best Film and, for Heston, Best Actor. Part of the actor's preparation for the film had been six weeks' training in chariot-driving under the famed stunt man Yakima Canutt (the film's second-unit director) so that he could perform convincingly in the climactic race that was the film's highlight. Said Heston,

Canutt shot all the driving stuff, but William Wyler cut the sequence. He made it not just a spectacular race, but a conflict between two men, Messala and Judah Ben-Hur. He resisted the temptation to hold on the overwhelming long shots of the packed circus.

Heston later described Wyler as "the best director of performance, in film, that I have ever worked with".

At the Oscar ceremony, Heston controversially thanked Christopher Fry, who had worked on the script throughout the shooting, his speech infuriating the Writers Guild, who had refused to allow MGM to give Fry a credit. (The dispute was known to Academy voters, and the writing award was the only one of 12 nominations that the film did not win.)

Heston turned down a co-starring role with Marilyn Monroe in Let's Make Love, and instead he returned to Broadway when given the chance to be directed by Laurence Olivier in The Tumbler (1960), a play in free verse by Benn Levy. Its Broadway run was brief, and it lost him the opportunity to co-star with Cary Grant in The Grass is Greener.

Film-making in Hollywood was slow at the time due to a Screen Actors Guild strike, and Heston gladly accepted an offer to join the union's board. Led by the guild's president Ronald Reagan, the strike successfully achieved pension and medical plans funded by the studios plus fees to be paid to actors when their work was re-run on television. Heston was himself to serve six terms as guild president.

Heston was also one of a small group of actors (including Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and James Garner) who took part in Martin Luther King's march on Washington at the height of the civil rights movement in 1964. "In a long life of activism in support of some good causes, I'm proudest of having stood in the sun behind that man, that morning."

Heston's politics attracted a lot of media attention over the years, particularly his paradoxical switch to the right that occurred in the 1964 elections, when he had "a true revelation, almost an epiphany", and decided to support Barry Goldwater instead of Lyndon Johnson. Later he ardently supported President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and he headed a conservative "watchdog" group called Actors Working for an Actors Guild, constantly locking horns with erstwhile president Ed Asner over Asner's public political statements. "The board has no right to set our position on save-the-whales or gun control or Israel," he declared.

His next epic film after Ben-Hur was Anthony Mann's El Cid (1961), co-starring Sophia Loren and based on the life story of the legendary Spanish hero who struggled to maintain his honour when driving the Moors from Spain. On its completion, Heston found time to demonstrate with others in front of Oklahoma restaurants that were still refusing to serve black people.

In another historical epic, 55 Days at Peking (1963), Heston was the commander of American troops in Peking at the time of the Boxer Revolution in 1900. Its director, Nicholas Ray, collapsed during the shooting, so three other directors – Guy Green, Noel Brown and Andrew Marton – worked on the film. It proved a ponderous piece, though Heston gave a forceful performance and was uncommonly touching in a sequence in which he adopts an orphan.

Heston's awesome catalogue of heroes continued with his portrayal of John the Baptist in George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Heston's performance was one of the few things critics liked in the turgid saga, which was to be Hollywood's greatest financial disaster until Heaven's Gate in 1980. Franklin Schaffner's The War Lord (1965) found more favour with critics, particularly for its meticulous reconstruction of life in 11th-century England. Heston was a lord who exercises the law of droit de seigneur, which allows him to take another man's bride on her wedding night. Intelligently scripted and skilfully performed, it failed to find the audience it deserved. Heston later wrote,

The studio was convinced from the beginning that they had the ingredients for a huge tits-and-armour piece. If we'd been allowed to shoot in

the English marshes with an English cast, away from the studio's enthusiastic urges that we spend more money on flaming siege towers, I think we'd have the film we envisioned.

As Michelangelo in Carol Reed's The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) he painted the Sistine Chapel and did verbal battle with the Pope (Rex Harrison) in an overblown and inaccurate piece that flopped at the box-office. In Basil Deardon's epic Khartoum (1966) he portrayed the British hero General Gordon in the last months of his life, climaxing with the 1883 battle in which his adversary was the militant Arab leader the Mahdi, played by Sir Laurence Olivier.

Heston also appeared in a number of westerns including Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee (1965) and one of his personal favourites ("one of the great parts of my life"), Tom Gries' Will Penny (1968). A quiet and thoughtful piece, in which the action arises out of character development, it featured one of Heston's most affecting performances, as an illiterate world-weary cowboy thwarted in his efforts to lead a peaceful existence.

Heston worked with Tom Gries again on the football drama Number One (1970), but the results were less pleasing. I met Heston when he was in London for the film's preview at the National Film Theatre and found him affable and modest – when he discovered that I was a fellow tennis enthusiast he insisted on introducing me to his companion for the evening, the great Australian champion Rod Laver. Heston was himself passionately keen on the game, and had a court built on his grounds.

In 1968 Heston starred in one of his greatest hits, Planet of the Apes, playing a time-travelling astronaut who, in one of the most chilling climaxes in film history, discovers that the simian-run planet on which he has landed is in fact Earth. He briefly reprised his role in the first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970).

I told Dick Zanuck, "I know you can't make this movie if I'm not in it, but I really don't want to do it. We've already told the story in the first one. The rest of them are just going to be Adventures Among the Monkeys. I'll do it but in this one kill me off. And give whatever money you want to pay me to a charity." That's what happened.

He also starred in two other sci-fi movies. In The Omega Man (1971), based on Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, he was the only human to have emerged totally unscathed from an atomic war, doing battle with covens of infected mutants who only come out at night. Heston said that his leading lady, Rosalind Cash, was the first to make him aware of his iconic status when she told him, "It's a spooky feeling, to screw Moses."

Soylent Green (1973) was set in a future in which the food of mankind turns out to be people. "I think overpopulation is the most serious problem facing the world today. That's the main reason why I did the film. I guess it's my only film with a strong social comment." Heston was also proud that it was his idea to cast Edward G. Robinson, who was outstanding in the last role of his life. "Casting him was probably my most important contribution to the picture."

In 1972 he starred as a pilot in an early disaster movie Skyjacked, and directed, adapted and starred in a laboured film version of Antony and Cleopatra that was not a success. Call of the Wild (1972) was described by the actor as "the worst film I ever made". The disaster movie Earthquake (1974), notable for being filmed in Sensurround, was a hit with the public if not critics, but Heston's big-screen career began to slip in the Seventies – he unwisely turned down the role of Brody in Jaws (1975) and the ambassador in The Omen (1976). In 1976 he was considered by the BBC for the title role in I, Claudius (as was Ronnie Barker), but the role went to Derek Jacobi.

Of his appearances in such undistinguished fare as Earthquake, Airport 1975 (1974) and Midway (1976), he said, "I've gotten to the point where I can, more or less, choose to do what I want to do and who I want to do it with. I've made a lot of little films like Touch of Evil and Will Penny. But you have to balance that off with doing films now and then that you are pretty certain are going to be successful."

Offered the role of Athos in Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers (1974) and its sequel The Four Musketeers (1975), he opted for the cameo role of villainous Cardinal Richelieu instead. His son Fraser wrote the script for Mountain Men (1980), in which Heston and Robert Keith starred as ageing trappers, after which Heston directed and starred in Mother Lode (1982), which his son both wrote and produced. Neither was successful, but the pair had more success with two films for cable TV, Treasure Island (1990) with Heston as Long John Silver, and Crucifer of Blood (1991), in which he played Sherlock Holmes.

Devoting more time to the theatre, he appeared on the Los Angeles stage in The Crucible (1974), Macbeth (1975) with Vanessa Redgrave ("the finest actress alive though politically she and I could not be farther apart"), and Long Day's Journey into Night (1976) with Deborah Kerr. He had a triumph in London in 1985 playing Captain Queeg in a revival of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, and returned the following year to play Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons prior to making a film version.

In the 1980s, he was frequently seen on television as a spokesperson for conservative issues, and in 1985 he starred in The Colbys, a spin-off from the hit series Dynasty, with a similar emphasis on glamour and intrigue among the super-rich. Heston played Jason Colby, head of a giant multinational conglomerate, in the short-lived show best remembered now for having one of the most bizarre end-of-season cliffhangers ever devised for a TV soap-opera, as Jason's daughter-in-law Fallon (Emma Samms), driving down a remote country road, is abducted and carried away in an alien spaceship. (That ended the series' second season, and there was no third.)

Of the larger-then-life screen roles with which he became most associated, Heston commented, "They've been a great antidote for the corrosive effects of being a so-called celebrity. When you're playing Moses, you go to your hotel and try to part the water in the bathtub. When it doesn't work you feel pretty humble."

When he served as president of the Screen Actors Guild, it was pointed out that two of his predecessors, George Murphy and Ronald Reagan, had then gone into politics. Heston, though, stated that he had no political ambitions. "I've played three presidents, three saints and two geniuses," he said. "That should satisfy any man."

Tom Vallance

Charles Carter (Charlton Heston), actor: born Evanston, Illinois 4 October 1924; married 1944 Lydia Clark (one son, one adopted daughter); died Beverly Hills, California 5 April 2008.