Family & Companions
Heston supplied the voice-over for the Anheuser-Busch environmental campaign.
He underwent treatment for prostate cancer in December 1998
One of the most commanding stars of his era, actor Charlton Heston was a man whose presence allowed him to play larger than life characters on screen, while his own personal convictions gained him both admirers and detractors throughout his lifetime. With his imposing stature and sonorous voice, it did not take long before the stage actor was landing roles on early television and headlining in feature films like "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952). As impressive as these early roles were, Heston’s performances in the biblical blockbusters "The Ten Commandments" (1956) and "Ben-Hur" (1959) cemented his stature as a leading man in Hollywood. He continued with a steady output of historical epics and, as the 1960s drew to a close, took part in several science fiction classics, beginning with "Planet of the Apes" (1968). Even as he worked steadily over the decades, Heston was also known for his outspoken activism, first as a long-standing president of the Screen Actors Guild and later in the same role with the influential gun lobby, the National Rifle Association. It was his affiliation with the latter, combined with his vocal opposition to what he decried as the politically correct "culture wars" in America that drew the ire of many in the predominantly left-leaning Hollywood community. Regardless of his political views, there was no denying that Charlton Heston was one of the most influential and prolific actors of 20th Century cinema, providing generations of audiences with some of the most memorable big screen performances of all time.
Born John Charles Carter on Oct. 8, 1923 in Evanston, IL to parents Lilla and Russell Whitford Carter, Heston’s family moved to the extremely rural town of St. Helen, MI when he was still an infant. As an only child, he spent long hours exploring the forests near his childhood home, often acting out characters from the copious books he enjoyed reading. When he was 10 years old, his parents divorced. His mother soon remarried to Chester Heston, and the new family relocated to the suburb of Wilmette, just north of Chicago. Adopting his stepfather’s surname, Heston went on to attend New Trier High School, enrolling in the school’s dramatic arts program. He later attended Northwestern University on a drama scholarship and it was during this time that he appeared in the amateur 16mm production of "Peer Gynt" (1941), written and directed by fellow student and future film historian David Bradley. For his credit on the film, Heston took the stage name of "Charlton" – his mother’s maiden name – for the first time. In 1944, he enlisted in the armed services, and was stationed as a radio operator and gunner at an Alaskan air base for most of the war. Post-World War II, Heston and his young wife Lydia Clarke moved to New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, making ends meet as artists’ models for a time, before moving to Asheville, NC where they ran a small theater company.
Before long, Heston and his wife returned to New York where he gained notice with a supporting role in legendary stage actress Katharine Cornell’s Broadway production of "Antony and Cleopatra" (1947). He went on to portray Antony in the independently produced film "Julius Caesar" (1949), once again directed by David Bradley. Heston also began to make an impression on early television, especially in a flurry of dashing romantic leads – including Heathcliff, Rochester and Petruchio – on the famous drama anthology "Studio One" (CBS, 1948-1958). By the time he made the move to Hollywood to appear in William Dieterle's moody film noir "Dark City" (1950), Heston was clearly a rising star, listed in the credits ahead of the more established Lizabeth Scott. He secured his top-billing status with his role as the ill-tempered circus manager in his second studio film, Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952). His take on Buffalo Bill Cody in "The Pony Express" (1953), combined with a portrayal of Andrew Jackson in "The President’s Lady" (1953), would mark the beginning of a legendary list of credits in which he would unforgettably embody historical – and soon, biblical – characters. With DeMille’s breathtaking second version of "The Ten Commandments" (1956), Heston proved himself to be a true force of nature in the role of Moses (and as the voice of God), placing him squarely at the very top of the Hollywood heap.
In "The Buccaneer" (1958) Heston once again essayed Andrew Jackson, and in an incredibly unconventional move, portrayed Mexican narcotics officer Ramon Miguel "Mike" Vargas in the Orson Welles potboiler "Touch of Evil" (1958). Co-starring Janet Leigh and Welles as the corpulent and corrupt Police Captain Hank Quinlan, the film went on to be regarded as one of Welles’ very best, surpassed only by "Citizen Kane" (1941). Next, Heston ably transformed fiction into fact when his Oscar-winning performance in "Ben-Hur" (1959) elevated the story of a Jewish charioteer transfixed by the sight of Christ into the stuff of legend. As French critic Michel Mourlet infamously rhapsodized, "Charlton Heston is an axiom of the cinema." More larger-than-life roles followed, including memorable turns as the Spanish hero "El Cid" (1961), John the Baptist in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1964), Michelangelo in "The Agony and the Ecstasy" (1965), a indomitable cavalry officer in "Major Dundee" (1965), and as the doomed General Charles "Chinese" Gordon in "Khartoum" (1966). With his first foray into the realm of science fiction, Heston took on what would unexpectedly become one of his most famous, oft-quoted roles – that of Taylor, an astronaut of the future inexplicably stranded on the "Planet of the Apes" (1968). That same year he returned to the Western milieu; this time as the aging, reflective cowpoke "Will Penny" (1968), regarded by the actor as one of his favorite film performances.
Although the 1970s brought about a changing of the guard in Hollywood, Heston remained a major star, busier than ever in both leading and prominent supporting roles. He briefly reprised the role of Taylor for the apocalyptic climax of the sequel "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" (1970), and stayed with the genre for "The Omega Man" (1971), a loose adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novella I Am Legend. He made his directorial debut with a work he was quite familiar with – "Antony and Cleopatra" (1972), co-starring Hildegard Neil as the Egyptian Queen. Heston brought out his sinister best with his portrayal of the evil Cardinal Richelieu in "The Three Musketeers" (1973), followed by his role as a cop from the near future who uncovers a sickening conspiracy in "Soylent Green" (1973), alongside Edward G. Robinson in his final performance. Heston joined the disaster epic fad of the mid-1970s, first with "Earthquake" (1974), and then the cleverly titled "Airport 1975" (1975). He reprised Richelieu for "The Four Musketeers" (1975), played a navy pilot in the WWII naval battle spectacular "Midway" (1976), and reteamed with "Musketeers" director Richard Fleischer to essay Henry VIII in "Crossed Swords" (1978). Next, Heston performed double duty again, directing and starring in "Mother Lode" (1982), an adventure tale written and produced by his son, Fraser.
After a 15-year absence, the actor returned to the small screen as the star of the police drama miniseries "Chiefs" (CBS, 1983), and later became a series regular on the primetime soap "The Colbys" (ABC, 1985-87), before settling into a succession of starring roles in telefilms. He directed and starred in a remake of "A Man for All Seasons" (TNT, 1988), reprising his stage role as Sir Thomas More. Heston went on to essay iconic fictional characters Long John Silver and Sherlock Holmes in two made-for-TV movies adapted and produced by his son – "Treasure Island" (TNT, 1990) and "The Crucifer of Blood" (TNT, 1991). He played superspy Arnold Schwarzenegger’s boss in James Cameron’s adrenaline-fueled "True Lies" (1994), followed by a cameo in John Carpenter’s ode to H.P. Lovecraft, "In the Mouth of Madness" (1995). Although the years altered his impressive physique, Heston’s resonant voice remained as strong as ever, lending itself perfectly to dramatic narration work on films like the Disney animated feature "Hercules" (1997) and the Bruce Willis/Ben Affleck explosive action adventure, "Armageddon" (1998). As the dying father of Tim Roth’s angry ape character, Heston made a brief return to the "Planet of the Apes" (2001), director Tim Burton’s pointless remake of the 1968 sci-fi classic.
Shortly after his performance in the "Apes" remake, it was announced that Heston had been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Also that year, he appeared in Michael Moore's Oscar-winning documentary, "Bowling for Columbine" (2002), a look at America's gun culture and the recent history of gun-related violence within the country’s schools. Heston – who was the president and spokesman for the National Rifle Association at the time – attempted to field a series of potentially embarrassing questions, aggressively asked by Moore before becoming flustered and excusing himself from the room. After the film’s release, many critics – even fans of the documentary – castigated Moore for what was viewed as an ambush on an elderly man suffering from a debilitating medical condition. However, when announcing his retirement as NRA president in 2003, an unwavering Heston raised a rifle over his head and repeated the infamous line he had shouted from a convention podium three years earlier, exclaiming that his Second Amendment rights would have be taken from "My cold, dead hands!" Post-"Columbine," Heston was little seen in the years that followed. His final film appearance was in the role of the sinister Nazi scientist, Dr. Joseph Mengele in the drama "Papa Rua Alguem 5555" (2003). That same year, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House from then-President George W. Bush. Afterwards, Heston remained mostly out of sight, residing in his Beverly Hills home, as reports of his rapidly declining condition surfaced periodically. On April 5, 2008, Heston died in his home with Lydia, his wife of 64 years, by his side. The cause of death was listed as "natural causes" in a statement issued by the family. Charlton Heston was 84.
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Made acting debut in a student production of Henrik Ibsen's play, "Peer Gynt"
Served in the US Air Force during WWII; during one 18-month stint was radio operator on B-29 stationed in the Aleutians
With wife Lydia Clarke, co-founded Thomas Wolfe Memorial Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina
Broadway debut, "Antony and Cleopatra" starring Katharine Cornell
Directed a revival of F. Hugh Herbert's stage comedy "Kiss and Tell" at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Theatre
TV debut as Marc Antony in a production of "Julius Caesar" staged for the dramatic anthology series, "Studio One"
Returned to Broadway in the Joseph Hayes' play, "Leaf and Bough" at the Cort Theatre
Made Hollywood (and 35mm) film acting debut in the leading role of director William Dieterle's film noir, "Dark City"
Performed in a radio version of "Double Indemnity"
First of three collaborations with Cecil B DeMille, "The Greatesu Show on Earth"
Narrated the radio series, "Kaleidoscope"
Became an icon for portraying Moses in "The Ten Commandments"; second collaboration with DeMille
First film with director William Wyler, "The Big Country"
Played the Beast (opposite Claire Bloom as Beauty) in the NBC TV presentation of "Beauty and the Beast"
Starred alongside Janet Leigh and Orson Welles in Welles' "Touch of Evil"
Earned Best Actor Oscar for his starring role in Wyler's "Ben-Hur"
First TV-movie, "The Patriots" (NBC) playing Thomas Jefferson
Narrated the short film, "The Five Cities of June"
Formed production company, Court Films, which co-produced (with Universal Pictures) "The War Lord"
Portrayed Michelangelo in "The Agony and the Ecstacy"
First science-fiction film, "Planet of the Apes"; directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
First film with director Tom Gries, "Will Penny"
Last dramatic role on TV for 15 years, Essex in "Elizabeth the Queen" (NBC)
Feature directorial debut, "Antony and Cleopatra"; also adapted and starred; produced under newly formed production company, Folio Films; first non US-production (British) and first of six collaborations with executive producer Peter Snell
Played first supporting role (Cardinal Richelieu) in a major Hollywood feature, "The Three Musketeers"
Directed (also starred) "Mother Lode"; written and produced by son Fraser
First TV acting role in 15 years, the CBS miniseries "Chiefs"
TV series debut, as Jason Colby on the ABC primetime soap, "The Colbys"; a spin-off from "Dynasty"
TV directorial debut, "A Man for All Seasons" (TNT), reprised stage role of Sir Thomas More; son Fraser was one of producers
TV producing debut, "Treasure Island" (TNT), also starred as Long John Silver; written and directed by son Fraser
Portrayed Sherlock Holmes in "The Crucifer of Blood" (TNT), directed by Fraser Heston
Hosted the four-part miniseries "Charlton Heston Presents the Bible" (A&E)
Portrayed a publisher in John Carpenter's "In the Mouth of Madness"
Became contributing columnist to <i>Guns & Ammo</i>
Made the rounds supporting the rerelease of Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil"
Played himself on an episode of NBC's "Friends"
Made cameo appearance as Tim Roth's ape father in the Tim Burton-directed adaptation of "Planet of the Apes"
Appeared in Michael Moore's Oscar-winning documentary, "Bowling for Columbine"
Lent his voice to an animated version of "Ben-Hur"; produced by his son Fraser
Last film role was as the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele in "My Father, Rua Alguem 5555"
Heston supplied the voice-over for the Anheuser-Busch environmental campaign.
He underwent treatment for prostate cancer in December 1998
Heston has served as the US delegate to the Berlin Film Festival.
Besides winning an Oscar, Heston has received Germany's "Bambi", Italy's "David di Donatello" and Belgium's "Uilenspiegel", winning the latter three times.
Favorably reviewing the 1968 feature film "Planet of the Apes", film critic Pauline Kael notes, "All this wouldn't be so forceful or so funny if it weren't for the use of Charlton Heston in the (leading) role. With his perfect, lean-hipped, powerful body, Heston is a godlike hero; built for strength, he's an archetype of what makes Americans win. He doesn't play a nice guy; he's harsh and hostile, self-centered and hot-tempered. Yet we don't hate him because he's so magnetically strong; he represents American power--and he has the profile of an eagle." --From "5001 Nights at the Movies" by Pauline Kael (NY: Henry Holt & Co., 1991)
"Heston ... says he hates being described as a star or a celebrity. 'I find those words distateful ... Although I dislike those descriptions, I suppose they are appropriate in my case." --quoted in "Page Six", New York Post, October 2, 1996.
He underwent hip surgery in November 1996.
Heston was elevated to the rank of Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in March 1997
On his experience with Orson Welles in "Touch of Evil": "He was a good actor, not great on lines. That's probably because he didn't study them. Actually, I remember when we finished, it was about six in the morning, we went to have some champagne and scrambled eggs, and we were telling each other how marvelous we were. I said to him, 'I think you only made one mistake in the picture.' He said, 'What is that, my boy?'--he always called me 'my boy.' I said, 'There are three short scenes that serve no point other than to remind the audience that I am the leading man and I have the best part, and that's not really true. This picture is about the decline and fall of your character, Captain Quinlan.' He said, 'Well, then I won't worry about them in the cutting room.' And he didn't--he cut them." --Heston to Time Out New York, September 10-17, 1998.