Heston, Charlton 1923–2008

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Heston, Charlton 1923–2008

(John Charles Carter)


See index for CA sketch: Born October 4, 1923, in Evanston, IL; died April 5, 2008, in Beverly Hills, CA. Actor, activist, and author. Heston is best known for his blockbuster film career. He most often portrayed larger-than-life, self-assured characters in close to eighty feature films, earning box-office success and critical acclaim. He also maintained a serious commitment to the acting fraternity and to the human community at large. Though his personal life remained relatively private, it was not without occasional controversy, but Heston the public figure made no apology for Heston the private citizen. After an apprenticeship on the New York stage in the 1940s and a modest television debut in the early days of the medium, Heston played supporting roles in films like The Greatest Show on Earth. In 1956 he won the role that guaranteed his box-office future: Moses in the Cecil B. DeMille classic The Ten Commandments. Thereafter Heston's imposing physique and resonant baritone voice led to one role after another, including such disparate personages as Andrew Jackson, Ben-Hur, and Michelangelo. He did not limit himself to historical figures, however; he also famously immortalized the fictional astronaut George Taylor in The Planet of the Apes. Nor did he restrict his roles to men of great authority and matching ego. He was praised for his sensitive portrayal of aging cowboy Will Penny. When film roles began to dwindle, Heston returned to the stage and the small screen. Stardom never seemed to be his only path to fulfillment. Heston was the president of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Film Institute. He served on Lyndon Johnson's Council on the Arts, Ronald Reagan's Task Force on the Arts and Humanities, and the grants committee of the National Endowment for the Arts. The liberal actor who once led the acting contingent in a civil rights march in the 1960s became more conservative as he aged. In 1998 he assumed the presidency of the National Rifle Association and, with it, the responsibility for resurrecting the organization as an effective lobby for gun ownership. That choice also led to a small and unflattering appearance in the 2002 film Bowling for Columbine, which unexpectedly aroused some sympathy for a revered actor who did not seem to understand the opposition. In the same year Heston announced to the world that he had been diagnosed with symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease, retired from the National Rifle Association, and disappeared from public life altogether. For both aspects of his persona, Heston received respect and recognition. His many awards include an Academy Award for Ben-Hur, a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, the Cecil B. DeMille Award of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and the Kennedy Center Honors. The Charlton Heston Award was established by the American Film Institute in his honor in 2003, the same year in which he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Heston kept several journals, which he later published, and wrote occasional memoirs and other manuscripts. Just as he had avoided stunt doubles whenever possible as an actor, he avoided ghostwriters as an author. Some critics made special note of the quiet competence reflected in his writing and the very human appeal of his books. Heston's writings include To Be a Man: Letters to My Grandson (1997), Charlton Heston Presents the Bible (1997), and (as a contributor of occasional commentary) Charlton Heston's Hollywood: 50 Years in American Film (1998).



Heston, Charlton, The Actor's Life: Journals, 1956-1976, E.P. Dutton (New York, NY), 1978.

Heston, Charlton, Beijing Diary, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1990.

Heston, Charlton, In the Arena: An Autobiography, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995.


Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2008, pp. A1, A10-A11.

New York Times, April 6, 2008, p. A20; April 7, 2008, p. A2; April 9, 2008, p. A2; April 22, 2008, p. A2.

Times (London, England), April 7, 2008, p. 49.

Washington Post, April 7, 2008, pp. A1, A14.