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.
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.