Charlton Heston, Actor and Gun Activist, Dies

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2008

Charlton Heston, 83, one of the most prominent and politically active movie stars of his era, who won an Academy Award and played the hero in many major epics, died last night at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif.

A spokesman for the actor confirmed the death to the Associated Press.

No cause was immediately given, but Heston said in 2002 that he had displayed symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease.

A strapping figure of commanding presence, Heston seemed particularly suited to such roles as Moses, the biblical patriarch, Ben-Hur, the fictional hero of Roman times, and the ringmaster who presided over operations in the "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952).

As the title character in "Ben-Hur," whose strength and pluck enabled him to escape slavery in a Roman galley and win a fiercely contested chariot race, Heston won the 1959 Oscar for best actor.

With a voice and bearing that benefited from college training in drama, Heston was persuasive in his portrayal of Moses in "The Ten Commandments" (1956).

He was also known for a starring role in "The Planet of the Apes" (1968), for playing Michelangelo in "The Agony and the Ecstasy" (1965), and he was well received as Andrew Jackson, in "The President's Lady" (1953).

He was a World War II veteran of the Army Air Forces. Early in his movie days, he was known for taking what were viewed as liberal positions; he said he showed his opposition to racial discrimination long before it became fashionable in Hollywood. He had led the actors' union. He was known as a firm advocate of free speech, a foe of McCarthyism and the Vietnam War.

He served from 1998 to 2003 as president of the National Rifle Association, and his forceful advocacy of gun-owners' rights did not always endear him to fellow residents in the film community.

In a widely reported act, he raised a cherished rifle above his head at an NRA convention to say that his Second Amendment rights would need to be taken "from my cold, dead hands."

He was born John Charles Carter, but his parents divorced when he was a child, and Heston was the last name of his stepfather.

He was active in drama in high school, earning a scholarship to Northwestern University, but he left college for World War II.

Afterward, he sought work in the theater in New York. Within a few years he was cast as a supporting player in a Broadway production of Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra." Television roles also helped raise his theatrical profile.

His first movie role came in 1950. Two years later, his jut-jawed determination dominated a screen full of crises as he oversaw "The Greatest Show on Earth."

He and his wife had two children.

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