Screen Legend Charlton Heston Dead at 84

Charlton Heston, who divided the Red Sea as Hollywood's Moses and divided America as leader of the National Rifle Association, died at age 84 on Saturday night at his Beverly Hills, Calif., home after a battle with Alzheimer's disease.

The accliamed actor, who was born, John Charlton Carter in Evanston, Ill., became known as much for his politics as his acting in his final decades in public life.

A towering figure in Hollywood, Heston defined his show business career portraying iconic and heroic figures, painting masterpieces as Michelangelo, racing chariots in "Ben-Hur" and defending the last vestiges of humanity in "Planet of the Apes."

Offscreen, Heston was as fiercely outspoken as many of his characters. In the 1960s, he was a civil rights activist, marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. Later in life, he saw gun advocacy as a natural extension of civil liberties — defiantly hoisting a rifle in the air at NRA rallies and vowing that his opponents would have to pry it away "from my cold dead hands."

In August 2002, Heston announced publicly, with the same bravery that defined his life, that he had a neurological disorder consistent with Alzheimer's disease.

"For an actor, there is no greater loss than the loss of his audience. I can part the Red Sea, but I can't part with you, which is why I won't exclude you from this stage in my life," he said.

King of the Epics

With his broad, 6'3" physique, steely blue eyes and rich voice, Heston was not destined to play the common man. His movie career took off in 1952 when he starred as a circus manager in "The Greatest Show on Earth," and catapulted to the upper reaches of stardom four years later, when he delivered the Israelites from Egyptian bondage in the Cecil B. DeMille classic "The Ten Commandments."

Through the late 1950s to the late 1960s, Heston hit his zenith, winning a best actor Oscar in the title role of "Ben-Hur" and delivering perhaps his finest performance opposite Sophia Loren in Anthony Mann's epic "El Cid," about the 11th century Spanish soldier who defends his homeland against the Moors.

In 1965, Heston came to movie theaters as both Michelangelo in "The Agony and the Ecstasy" and John the Baptist in "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

Still, it would be a mistake to say that the actor was typecast. He worked in a number of westerns and science fiction films, such as "Soylent Green" and "Planet of the Apes."

Even before it was fashionable for celebrities to speak out, Heston asserted himself, serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1965 to 1971, and later, as a member of the National Endowment for the Arts and president of the Los Angeles Music Center.

In the 1960s, he was not only marching with King, but also visiting troops fighting in Vietnam. His service in the civil rights movement was honored when he was asked to appear as a narrator in the 1970 documentary "King: A Filmed Record ... Montgomery to Memphis."

"That guy Heston has to watch it," singer Frank Sinatra said, after Heston won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1977. "If he's not careful, he'll get actors a good name."

In 1980, when fellow actor Ronald Reagan was elected president, Heston served on Reagan's Task Force on the Arts and Humanities.

Later in life, as a leader of the NRA, he came under attack for his outspoken politics, and, on a few occasions, had trouble maintaining the composure that served him so well on movie sets.

In a 1998 interview with The Sunday Telegraph of London, he broadly attacked the "fringe propaganda of the homosexual coalition; the feminists who preach that it is the divine duty for women to hate men, blacks who raise a militant fist with one hand while they seek preference with another, and New Age apologists for juvenile crime."

Later on, after hearing unkind public remarks from George Clooney, the nephew of singer Rosemary Clooney, Heston fought back. "It's funny how class can skip a generation, isn't it?"

Still, his life's work on-screen and off-screen left him with supporters who looked beyond the politics and saw a man deeply driven by his beliefs.

"Chuck has done so much for the cultural life of the country and for our town of Los Angeles," actor Gregory Peck told ABC Radio in an interview in the late 1990s.

Many in Hollywood came to his defense after Michael Moore's anti-gun documentary, "Bowling for Columbine," in which the filmmaker looped a clip of Heston at an NRA rally holding up a rifle and declaring, "From my cold, dead hands."

In the film, Moore hounds Heston for an interview and Heston eventually invites him into his home for a filmed chat, in which Moore confronts him, some say unfairly, about youths killed in gun-related violence.

The interview occurred before Heston publicly announced his struggle with Alzheimer's, but the movie was released afterward, leading some to say Moore should have cut the ambush interview, which made Heston look vague and confused.

In 2003, Heston won the next of his impressive trophies, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

A Career Honed From Pretend Games

Born Oct. 4, 1923, in Evanston, Ill., Charlton Carter was the son of a mill operator and a homemaker. His parents divorced when he was young and he adopted the last name of his stepfather, Chet Heston.

The family eventually relocated to rural St. Helens, Mich., where the closest theater was 25 miles away.

"All kids play pretend games," Heston said. "And because of the isolated nature of my boyhood, I went on doing it longer than most kids."

In high school, he started acting, earning a scholarship to Northwestern University in Chicago, where he studied drama alongside Tony Randall and Patricia Neal.

Struggling as a cash-strapped undergrad, Heston would later recall jumping the turnstile on the Chicago El and posing nude for art students for extra money. While still in school, he met Lydia Marie Clarke. They married in 1944.

During World War II, Heston served a three-year stint in the Air Force, mostly in the Aleutian Islands, rising to the rank of staff sergeant.

Upon his discharge from the military, he resumed his acting career, heading to New York and making his Broadway debut in 1948 in "Antony and Cleopatra."

Heston and his wife, who celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2004, have two children, Lydia and Frasier.

With Frasier, a director, Heston established a production company, Agamemnon Films, which has released an animated version of "Ben-Hur" on DVD, and the video "Charlton Heston Presents the Bible."

In later life, Heston had hip replacement surgery and fought prostate cancer, declaring himself cancer-free in 2001. Throughout it all, he continued to swim, play tennis and advocate for the NRA. In 2003, he stepped down as the organization's president after serving for five years.

"For now, I'm not changing anything," he said in a public statement about his illness. "I'll insist on work when I can; the doctors will insist on rest when I must. If you see a little less spring in my step, if your name fails to leap to my lips, you'll know why. And if I tell you a funny story for the second time, please laugh anyway."

He ended his speech, appropriately, with a quote from Shakespeare: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep."