July 26 2014, updated 1:32pm

Actor Charlton Heston dies (+video)

Last updated 17:26 06/04/2008
Reuters
A GIANT FALLS: Actor and firearms lobbyist Charlton heston, who won an Oscar for his leading role in Ben Hur, inset, has died aged 84.

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American actor Charlton Heston, whose chiselled features and commanding presence won him epic roles from Moses to Michelangelo, has died aged 84.

The Oscar-winning Heston, who was also president of the influential National Rifle Association lobbying group, died on Saturday night (local time) at his home in Beverly Hills with his wife Lydia at his side, the family said in a statement.

Heston had announced in 2002 that he was suffering symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

"To his loving friends, colleagues and fans, we appreciate your heartfelt prayers and support. Charlton Heston was seen by the world as larger than life," the family said.

"No one could ask for a fuller life than his. No man could have given more to his family, to his profession, and to his country. In his own words, 'I have lived such a wonderful life! I've lived enough for two people.'," the statement added.

The family said a private memorial service would be held.

In his heyday, Heston's rugged features and conservative lifestyle seemed to belong to another age. As director Anthony Mann said: "Put a toga on him and he looks perfect." Frank Sinatra once joked: "That guy Heston has to watch it. If he's not careful, he'll get actors a good name."

Between super-spectacles (The 10 Commandments, Ben Hur), science fiction movies (Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green) and disaster epics (Earthquake), Heston pushed for screen versions of Shakespearean plays, directing one, Anthony and Cleopatra.

Heston's most controversial role was not in a movie but as leader of the National Rifle Association, the gun-rights lobby group, from 1998 to 2003. He often stood at the podium at conventions, holding an antique flintlock rifle above his head and telling gun-control advocates they would not get his gun unless they could pry it "from my cold, dead hands."

Born John Charlton Carter (Heston was his stepfather's name) on Oct. 4, 1923, in Evanston, Illinois. He made his theatrical debut as Santa Claus in a school play at age 5 and studied acting at Northwestern University.

After a World War 2 stint as a gunner in the Army Air Corps, Heston headed to Broadway, where he briefly supported himself with nude modelling between acting jobs.

In 1944, he had married fellow Northwestern drama student Lydia Clarke and their marriage lasted 64 years until his death. They had two children, Fraser and Holly Ann.

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Heston gained attention in 1947 in Anthony and Cleopatra, which landed him a job in the Studio One television series that re-enacted famous plays.

The television work led to movies and Cecil B. DeMille put him in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), portraying a circus manager determined that the show must go on.

In 1956, DeMille cast Heston as Moses for The 10 Commandments, saying the actor reminded him of Michelangelo's statue. The $US7.5 million ($NZ9.65 million) epic was the most expensive film up to that time and became the second-biggest money maker of the time, behind Gone With the Wind.

In addition to playing Moses, Heston did the voice of God in the film. His 3-month-old son, Fraser, played the baby Moses floating down the Nile in a basket.

He took some roles in Westerns, with a break in 1957 for Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, followed by more epics. Heston earned a Best Actor Academy Award for the title role of Ben Hur (1959), in which he did many of his own chariot race stunts.

Less successful were his portrayal of John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told about the life of Jesus and that of Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy, a 1965 commercial flop.

Heston was a besieged astronaut in 1968's The Planet of the Apes but made sure his character was killed off in 1970's Beneath the Planet of the Apes so he would not be sought for further sequels.

The Ape pictures opened the science fiction door to him and hits like The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973). He was also a leading figure in disaster epics, among them Skyjacked (1972) and Airport 1975 (1974).

In 1984, Heston returned to television in two CBS mini-series and the following year he played patriarch Jason Colby in the TV soap opera Dynasty II: The Colbys of California.

In the 1960s Heston was involved in the civil rights movement. He served six terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild and in 1987, 16 years after leaving the SAG job, locked horns with SAG President Ed Asner over the guild's left-leaning stance.

He once campaigned for Democrats - Adlai Stevenson against Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy against Richard Nixon. But he switched to Republican Nixon in 1972 and backed old friend Ronald Reagan in the ex-actor's quest for the presidency. Thereafter, he was identified with conservative politics and causes.

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2003.

- Reuters

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