Charlton Heston, the Oscar winner who portrayed Moses and other heroic figures on film in the '50s and '60s and later championed conservative values as head of the National Rifle Association, has died. He was 84. The actor died Saturday night at his home in Beverly Hills with his wife Lydia at his side, family spokesman Bill Powers said. He declined to comment on the cause of death or provide further details.
Heston lent his strong presence to some of the most acclaimed and successful films of the midcentury. "Ben-Hur" won 11 Academy Awards, tying it for the record with the more recent "Titanic" (1997) and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (2003). He won the 1959 best actor Oscar as the chariot-racing "Ben-Hur."Heston's other hits include: "The Ten Commandments," "El Cid," "55 Days at Peking" and "Planet of the Apes." He liked to cite the number of historical figures he had portrayed, including Moses ("The Ten Commandments"), John the Baptist ("The Greatest Story Ever Told") and Michelangelo ("The Agony and the Ecstasy"). Heston made his movie debut in the 1940s in two independent films by a college classmate, David Bradley, who later became a noted film archivist. He had the title role in "Peer Gynt" in 1942 and was Marc Antony in Bradley's 1949 version of "Julius Caesar," for which Heston was paid $50 a week.
Film producer Hal B. Wallis ("Casablanca") spotted Heston in a 1950 television production of "Wuthering Heights" and offered him a contract. When his wife reminded him that they had decided to pursue theater and television, he replied, "Well, maybe just for one film to see what it's like." Heston earned star billing from his first Hollywood movie, "Dark City," a 1950 film noir. Cecil B. DeMille next cast him as the circus manager in the all-star "The Greatest Show On Earth," named by the Motion Picture Academy as the best picture of 1952. More movies followed. Most were forgettable low-budget films, and Heston seemed destined to remain an undistinguished action star. His old boss DeMille rescued him. The director had long planned a new version of "The Ten Commandments," which he had made as a silent in 1923 with a radically different approach that combined biblical and modern stories. He was struck by Heston's facial resemblance to Michelangelo's sculpture of Moses, especially the similar broken nose, and put the actor through a long series of tests before giving him the role. The Hestons' newborn, Fraser Clarke Heston, played the role of the infant Moses in the film. More films followed: the eccentric thriller "Touch of Evil," directed by Orson Welles; William Wyler's "The Big Country," costarring with Gregory Peck; a sea saga, "The Wreck of the Mary Deare" with Gary Cooper.
Then his greatest role: "Ben-Hur." Heston wasn't the first to be considered for the remake of 1925 biblical epic. Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster and Rock Hudson had declined the film. Heston plunged into the role, rehearsing two months for the furious chariot race. The huge success of "Ben-Hur" and Heston's Oscar made him one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood. He combined big-screen epics like "El Cid" and "55 Days at Peking" with lesser ones such as "Diamond Head," "Will Penny" and "Airport 1975." In his later years he played cameos in such films as "Wayne's World 2" and "Tombstone."