Charlton Heston dead at 84

Charlton Heston, the chisel-jawed Hollywood icon best remembered for his Oscar-winning performance in the 1959 epic “Ben Hur” has died at his home, his family said.

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He was 84.

Heston\’s family said in a statement that the actor famed for his heroic roles and portrayal of historical figures ranging from Moses to Michelangelo died yesterday with his wife of 64 years, Lydia, by his side.

The actor, an outspoken liberal Democrat during the 1960s who later attracted controversy for his unapologetic support of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and conservative causes, revealed in 2002 he was battling Alzheimer\’s disease.

“To his loving friends, colleagues and fans, we appreciate your heartfelt prayers and support,” the Heston family said in a statement.

“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.

“Indeed, he committed himself to every role with passion, and pursued every cause with unmatched enthusiasm and integrity,” the statement went on to say.

“We knew him as an adoring husband, a kind and devoted father, and a gentle grandfather, with an infectious sense of humour. He served these far greater roles with tremendous faith, courage and dignity.

Heston\’s long-time representative Michael Levine said the actor\’s death represented not only “the loss of a great actor and human being, but also the end of an era.”

Bush leads tributes

US President George W Bush led tributes to the actor.

President Bush, who draped the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Heston\’s neck in a 2003 ceremony, hailed the actor as “one of the most successful actors in movie history and a strong advocate for liberty”.

“He was a man of character and integrity, with a big heart,” Bush said.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain meanwhile paid tribute to Heston\’s long record of political activism, which included lobbying for civil rights in the 1960s before his later shift to the right.

“In taking on epic and commanding roles, he showed himself to be one of our nation\’s most gifted actors, and his legacy will forever be a part of our cinema,” McCain said in a statement.

“Off the screen, Charlton Heston was also a real-life leader. He served his country and proudly gave his voice in support of some of our most basic rights.”

Distinguished career

Born John Charlton Carter on October 4, 1923 in Evanston, Illinois, Heston created his pseudonym by combining his mother\’s maiden name, Charlton, with his stepfather\’s name, Heston.

His talent for acting was discovered after his family moved to suburban Chicago, where he became the star in several school plays.

From there, he went to nearby Northwestern University, served in the air force in World War II and eventually landed on Broadway, making his debut in Antony and Cleopatra. He made his feature film debut in 1941 appearing as the lead character in Peer Gynt.

His penchant for playing historical figures was in evidence again when he appeared as Mark Anthony in 1950\’s Julius Caesar, yet it was his performance as circus manager Brad Baden in the Cecil B. DeMille epic The Greatest Show on Earth, that signalled his star potential.

Another collaboration with DeMille saw him star as Moses in the blockbuster 1956 film The Ten Commandments, before William Wyler\’s landmark Roman chariot-racing epic Ben Hur.

Weighing in at nearly four hours in length, the film was to mark the zenith of the then Hollywood fashion for lavish biblical-themed productions.

In later years Heston would often recall that before filming the climactic scene in Ben-Hur, director Wyler told him that if he could just stay in the chariot, Wyler could guarantee he would win the race.

As well as Ben Hur, Heston played dozens of fictional and historical heroes, playing the lead in El Cid 1961 and starring as Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965).

“I\’ve played cardinals and cowboys, kings and quarterbacks, presidents and painters, cops and conmen,” Heston once said.

Other memorable roles include a marooned astronaut in the superb 1968 science-fiction film Planet of the Apes and a detective in another futuristic cult classic, 1973\’s Soylent Green.

In later years Heston worked on successful television soap operas including Dynasty and its spinoff, “The Colbys.

Changing activism

The last decade of his life saw Heston often in the spotlight for his outspoken political views and his vociferous support and leadership of the NRA.

Although he had been a self-proclaimed liberal during the 1960s – accompanying the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. during 1963\’s civil rights march in Washington – his political views later swung sharply to the right.

As president of the NRA he achieved notoriety in 2000 when declaring at the organisation\’s convention that his guns would have to be taken away “from my cold, dead hands.”

Heston had hip replacement surgery in 1998 and survived prostate cancer that same year. In August 2002 he announced that he had Alzheimer\’s, a condition he battled with characteristic grit.

“What cannot be cured must be endured,” he said when asked about his illness in what was believed to be his final televised interview in 2002.

One year later he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

He is survived by two children, Fraser Clarke Heston and Holly Heston Rochell, and three grandchildren, Jack Alexander Heston, Ridley Rochell and Charlie Rochell.