Charlton Heston, who has died aged 84, was an actor of towering physique who was in constant demand to play epic heroes in Hollywood movies of the 1950s and 1960s; he was, later in life, almost as well-known for his staunchly Right-wing stance, especially in his role as president of America's National Rifle Association.
Among his many epic roles, Heston played Moses in Cecil B DeMille's 1956 remake of The Ten Commandments, the title roles in Ben-Hur (1959) and El Cid(1961), Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) and General Gordon in Khartoum (1966).
Though Bibical parts comprised only a small fraction of his work — apart from Moses, he was John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) — he came to be seen as Hollywood's resident Man of God and late in life narrated a series for television introducing stories from the Bible. From this, perhaps, stemmed the mistaken impression that he had actually portrayed God on screen.
Second to historical figures, he had a penchant for science fiction and appeared regularly in this genre in films that have since attained a cult reputation. He was the astronaut in the original Planet of the Apes (1968) who discovers that the gorilla-dominated world in which he has landed is actually Earth aeons after a nuclear holocaust. In 2001 he took a cameo role as an ageing ape in Tim Burton's remake.
In The Omega Man (1971), based on Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, he played the last man on Earth after presumably a different nuclear holocaust has turned everybody else into albino, blood-sucking zombies. Soylent Green(1973), based on Harry Harrison's story Make Room! Make Room!, imagined an alternative, polluted future in which nutrients are supplied by green tablets supposedly made of soya beans and lentils (and called soylent green). In fact, as Heston discovers in the film, they are processed from the recycled flesh of corpses because in a sunless world no vegetables will grow. In 1990 Heston made a further sf saga in Japan known as Solar Crisis, but it turned out badly, was attributed to the pseudonymous director Allen Smithee and consigned straight to video.
He was an actor of limited range, renowned in real life for lacking a sense of humour. Ventures into comedy such as The Private War of Major Benson(1955) and The Pigeon That Took Rome (1962) were conspicuous failures, though he had an amusing guest spot in Wayne's World 2 (1993) demonstrating to comedian Mike Myers the art of under-acting.
Long active in politics, Heston was of rigorously conservative persuasion, though – like his great friend Ronald Reagan – he had begun his involvement in politics as a moderate Democrat who campaigned for Adlai Stevenson, voted for John F Kennedy in 1961 and attended Martin Luther King's march on Washington.
In later life, however, he made no bones about his position. “Yep, today I am about as Right-wing as a man can be,” he proudly told The Daily Telegraph's Jan Moir in 1999. “They don't come any more Right-wing than me.” He supported the Gulf War and opposed both a nuclear freeze and any moves to curtail the individual's right to bear firearms. Six times president of the Screen Actors Guild, he fought long and bitter battles with the liberal comedian Ed Asner over what he saw as attempts to politicise the union.
But Heston was not the unreconstructed reactionary his opponents sometimes portrayed. He campaigned on occasion for Democrats as well as Republicans and remained an active champion of the civil rights movement, prepared to stand on line in protests with actors much farther to the political Left than he. His interest in the right to bear arms was matched by a defence of other civil liberties, all rooted in an almost religious reverence for the American Bill of Rights.
Could he, like Ronald Reagan, have become a politician? Possibly, but he would have had to give up acting, which meant more to him. “I'd rather play a senator than be one,” he said. Or, indeed, a president, such as Andrew Jackson, whom he played twice in The President's Lady (1953) and The Buccaneer (1958); Thomas Jefferson (in The Patriot); or the voice of FDR in a TV series.
Of English and Scottish descent, Charlton Heston was born Charles Carter on October 4 1923 at Evanston, Illinois, and grew up at St Helen, Michigan, where his father, Russell Carter, owned a lumber mill. After his parents divorced in the mid-1930s, his mother remarried Chester Heston, a heating appliance superintendent. As an actor, Charlton Heston later assumed his mother's maiden name (Lilla Charlton) and his step-father's surname, but preferred to be called “Chuck” — a nickname that stuck and by which he was happy to be known by friends and strangers alike.
His education was conventional — Stolp Grammar School at Evanston, New Trier High School at Winnetka, Illinois, and Northwestern University, where he enjoyed his first experience of film acting in the title role of a 16mm silent production of Ibsen's Peer Gynt (1942), directed by the independent film-maker David Bradley.
Bradley was impressed and seven years later, after war service in the Aleutians, Heston was offered the role of Antony in another David Bradley 16mm production of Julius Caesar (1949). In 1970, he played the role again in a studio film of the same Shakespeare play.
In the post-war American theatre, Heston's rise was swift and relatively smooth. He played in The Glass Menagerie, State of the Union and a 1947 production ofAntony and Cleopatra (in the small role of Proculeius). On television, he also made his mark in classical roles in The Taming of the Shrew, Wuthering Heights, Macbeth and Jane Eyre, as Mr Rochester — a role that caught the eye of the Paramount producer Hal B. Wallis, who signed him to a contract.
Heston's first Hollywood movie, Dark City (1950), was a routine film noir, but it was followed in 1952 by The Greatest Show on Earth, a Cecil B DeMille circus epic that set the pattern for his future career. He played the rough, tough manager of a circus on the slide who, through drive and personal charisma, puts it back on the road. To many people's surprise the film was named best of the year in the annual Oscars.
For four years, however, Heston was unable to capitalise on this success, appearing only in a stream of second-rate Westerns and action pictures, of which The Savage (1952), Pony Express (1953), as Buffalo Bill, Arrowhead(1953) and The Far Horizons (1955), were typical examples.
The Ten Commandments (1956) was Heston's salvation. Cecil B DeMille cast him as Moses after being struck by his resemblance to Michelangelo's statueMoses in the Temple — right down to the broken nose Heston had sustained while playing college football. “If you can't make a career out of two De Milles”, Heston said, “you'll never make it.” He did just that. Spectacles became his chosen genre, culminating in Ben-Hur (1959) and El Cid (1961), in which, at the end, his corpse is strapped to his horse so that he could be seen to be leading his troops into battle in defiance of the laws of nature — a truly miraculous hero.
The veteran director William Wyler cast him in Ben-Hur after a successful collaboration the previous year in the Western The Big Country — a pacifist allegory that became a classic of its kind. Ben-Hur was a huge box-office success and a multiple Oscar-winner, including an award for Heston as best actor of the year.
In 1996 his performance in this film came back to haunt him in a squabble with the writer Gore Vidal, who worked on the script without screen credit. Vidal insisted that he had written the relationship between Ben-Hur and the Roman centurion Messala to imply that they had once been homosexual lovers. Stephen Boyd, who played Messala, and Wyler were said to be privy to this coded sub-text but Heston, by virtue of his known puritanism, was kept in the dark. Heston rejected the notion but the film is at least ambiguous on this score.
Few of Heston's movies made any pretension to art. Exceptions, such asTouch of Evil (1958) and Major Dundee (1965), often suffered at the hands of an insensitive studio. In Touch of Evil, the last film made in Hollywood by Orson Welles, Heston played a Mexican detective who exposes corruption by a local cop, played by Welles himself. It was a triumph of baroque film-making but for many years was seen only in a version omitting many of Welles's finest scenes.
Eventually, however, it was restored — unlike Major Dundee, an epic Western by Sam Peckinpah, that substantially over-ran its budget and shooting schedule. There were moves to remove him from the picture. Heston defended Peckinpah during production, ensuring that he was able to complete it, but could not prevent the studio drastically shortening the film in the cutting rooms, effectively wrecking the structure.
Relations between star and director deteriorated as shooting wore on. In one scene, a befuddled Peckinpah told Heston to lead his troops at a trot, later realising that he had meant a canter. Without admitting his mistake, but denouncing Heston as a “stupid ****”, he ordered him to do it again. Heston obliged and, with sabre bared, came within inches of slicing Peckinpah into the next world.
In the 1970s, Heston continued to play historical figures, such as Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers (1975) and Henry VIII in The Prince and the Pauper (1977). He also directed a few films himself — Antony and Cleopatra(1972) opposite Hildegarde Neil, Mother Lode (1982) and (for television) a remake in 1988 of A Man for All Seasons, with himself as Sir Thomas More. Inevitably it was unfavourably compared with Fred Zinnemann's Oscar-winning version of 1966, with Paul Scofied.
In later years, Heston played the role of Jason Colby in the long-running TV series The Colbys. A London stage appearance in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial in 1985 was politely received. He made further forays into the theatre, appearing beside his wife in Love Letters, a two-hander which they toured in America in 1997 and brought to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, two years later. Most of his later appearances on the big screen were in cameos where he played versions of himself or parodies of the characters he had created; most (such as Wayne's World 2) made much of his lack of humour for comic effect. His final role was as Joseph Mengele in a little-seen picture from 2003.
In 2002 he walked out, mid-interview, of an appearance in Michael Moore's documentary Bowling for Columbine, when the NRA was accused of insensitivity in staging its annual conference just after the massacre at a high school. Heston later complained that Moore had ambushed him unfairly. The following year, Heston resigned as president of the NRA and announced that he was suffering symptoms consistent with the onset of Alzheimer's disease. He had been in poor health for some years before his death.
Charlton Heston wrote two books of reminiscences — The Actor's Life (1978), based on his diaries, and a full-scale autobiography, In the Arena (1995).
He married, in 1944, the actress Lydia Clarke, whom he had met as a fellow student at Northwestern University. They had two children: Fraser (who played the infant Moses in The Ten Commandments and is now a director) and a daughter, Holly Ann.