By Hilary White

BEVERLY HILLS, California, April 7, 2008 ( – In his legendary film career he played saints, geniuses, prophets, soldiers and even the occasional bad guy, but in real life, Charlton Heston was a genuine hero for his defence of civil rights for blacks and for the unborn. His death on Saturday, at age 84, was met with an outpouring of admiration and tributes on the internet and television news and on countless blogs. Admirers lauded him as one of the last of the old-time Hollywood movie stars, and as a man who also embodied in his off-screen life the integrity, patriotism and honour he often portrayed in films. 

“If Hollywood had a Mt. Rushmore, Heston’s face would be on it,” Michael Levine, Mr. Heston’s publicist for twenty years, said. “He was a heroic figure that I don’t think exists to the same degree in Hollywood today.”

The exact cause of death has not been announced, but in August 2002, a spokesman for Mr. Heston announced that he had been diagnosed with neurological symptoms “consistent with Alzheimer’s disease.” In April 2006, various news sources reported Heston’s illness was at an advanced stage and his family was worried he might not survive the year.

With his booming baritone voice, chiselled and ruggedly handsome features and commanding screen presence, Heston was best known for his larger-than-life roles, including Moses in the Ten Commandments, Michelangelo, the medieval crusader knight El Cid, saints John the Baptist and Thomas More and Cardinal Richelieu. But his off-screen activism reflected the same values of freedom and personal initiative, moral integrity and civic responsibility as the iconic roles he played.

In 1944, Heston enlisted in the military, serving for two years as a B-25 radio operator/gunner stationed in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands with the Eleventh Air Force, rising to the rank of Staff Sergeant. In the same year, at age 20, he married his bride, Lydia Marie Clarke, to whom he remained faithful for 64 years. Lydia was by his side when he died Saturday.

In his life as actor, every role he played, Heston played big. In the majestic 1959 film Ben Hur, possibly his most popular role, Heston was the only cast member who volunteered to drive his own chariot in the scene that is still considered the greatest ever action scene in cinematic history. Ben Hur was the first film to take eleven Oscars, including one for Heston for best actor, an achievement unmatched until Titanic and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur are on the list of all-time top grossing films.

His political activism started in the early 1960s. When an Oklahoma movie theatre premiering his movie was segregated, he joined a picket line outside in 1961. He risked his livelihood campaigning for black civil rights at a time before it was a fashionable Hollywood cause. More recently, as president of the National Rifle Association for five years he spoke out for Second Amendment rights against gun control.

Equal to his support for the black civil rights movement, Heston opposed abortion and gave the introduction to the 1987 pro-life documentary by Bernard Nathanson, Eclipse of Reason, that describes the horror of late-term abortions.

For his conservative stands, however, Heston was attacked and reviled by his Hollywood colleagues. In 2003 actor and leftist political activist George Clooney joked about Heston’s illness, and, after Heston criticised him for the remark, he retorted, “I don’t care. Charlton Heston is the head of the National Rifle Association. He deserves whatever anyone says about him.”

In a speech at Harvard Law School in 1999, Heston deplored the culture of political correctness that had, he said, suppressed the freedoms of ordinary people. “I’ve worked with brilliantly talented homosexuals all my life – throughout my whole career. But when I told an audience that gay rights should extend no further than your rights or my rights, I was called a homophobe.”

“From Time magazine to friends and colleagues, they’re essentially saying, ‘Chuck, how dare you speak your mind like that. You are using language not authorized for public consumption’. But I am not afraid. If Americans believed in political correctness, we’d still be King George’s boys – subjects bound to the British crown.”

Later he called political correctness “tyranny with manners”. In a recorded statement on Rush Limbaugh’s radio programme, Heston called the popular notion that global warming is the result of human activity a case of “intoxicating vanity”. In July 2003 Charlton Heston was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush, the highest civilian award in the United States.

A statement from his family said Heston “was known for his chiselled jaw, broad shoulders and resonating voice”. But, his family said, his greatest roles were those of “adoring husband, a kind and devoted father, and a gentle grandfather, with an infectious sense of humour. He served these far greater roles with tremendous faith, courage and dignity. He loved deeply, and he was deeply loved.”


Heston speaks with Vatican Radio on the influence of Hollywood (RealPlayer required):

Memorable Heston moments:

Or driving the chariot in Ben Hur:

Judah Ben Hur meets Jesus:

And reading the Gospel:

And the immortal line from Planet of the Apes