Best known in his later years as the outspoken president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), the actor Charlton Heston first earned a reputation in Hollywood for playing larger-than-life figures in epic movies such as The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur. He died on this day in 2008, at the age of 84.
Born on October 4, 1923, and raised in the Midwest, Heston caught the acting bug in high school; he later attended Northwestern University. He landed his first major role in a 1947 production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra on Broadway, and three years later made his film debut in Dark City. Impressed with the young actor’s screen presence, the legendary director Cecil B. DeMille cast Heston as the manager of a circus in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Four years later, DeMille gave Heston the role that would make him famous–that of the biblical hero Moses in The Ten Commandments.
With his leading-man status confirmed, Heston went on to star in other notable films for Hollywood’s best directors. In 1958, he played a Mexican narcotics detective in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, appearing opposite Welles himself. Another biblical epic, Ben-Hur (1959), directed by William Wyler, won a then-record 11 Academy Awards (a mark that was later tied by Titanic in 1998 and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004). Heston took home an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of a rebellious young aristocrat in ancient Judea.
In all, Heston would appear in some 100 movies on the big and small screens over the course of his lengthy career. He played the title character in the Spanish medieval epic El Cid (1961), opposite Sophia Loren, and was panned by critics for his turn as Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965). He portrayed Mark Antony in both Julius Caesar (1970) and Antony and Cleopatra (1973); he also directed the latter film. Heston also made forays into the Western genre (1968’s Willy Penny), science fiction (the 1968 hit The Planet of the Apes and its 1970 sequel, 1971’s Omega Man and 1973’s Soylent Green), and highbrow literary adaptations (1972’s The Call of the Wild and 1973’s The Three Musketeers). His later work for cable television included A Man for All Seasons (1988) and The Avenging Angel (1995).
Long active in political and social causes, Heston publicly supported the civil rights movement and participated in the historic march on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. In 1966, Heston succeeded his friend and fellow actor Ronald Reagan as president of the Screen Actors Guild, a post he would hold until 1971. He also served as chairman of the American Film Institute from 1973 to 1983. After Reagan won the U.S. presidency in 1980, he appointed Heston as the co-chairman of a task force on arts and humanities. In this role, Heston defended National Endowment for the Arts and proved to be an effective speaker and public figure.
According to his obituary in The New York Times, Heston switched his political affiliation from Democrat to Republican in 1987, after the Democrats blocked the Supreme Court appointment of Robert Bork, a conservative whom Heston supported. Over the next decade, Heston began increasingly to speak out about what he saw as a decline of morality in American popular culture and entertainment. In 1996, he campaigned on behalf of various Republican candidates. He began focusing specifically on the opposition to gun control. After being elected vice president of the NRA in 1997, he became president the following year.
Heston parlayed his rugged onscreen persona into a forceful role at the head of the NRA’s campaign against what it saw as the federal government’s attempts to encroach on the constitutional right to bear arms. In 2000, he made a memorable speech at the NRA’s annual convention, bringing his audience to their feet with the rousing claim that gun-control advocates would have to pry his gun “from my cold, dead hands!” Meanwhile, Heston continued acting through the 1990s, making one of his final film appearances (uncredited) in Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes.