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Heston: a Biblical film hero who preached about rights

world Updated: Apr 06, 2008 15:04 IST

AFP
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He may have risen to superstardom playing Moses in The Ten Commandments, but US actor Charlton Heston, who died at the age of 84, also made a name for himself - and gained a bit of notoriety - preaching about people's inalienable rights.

Beginning as a civil rights activist, developing into a staunch defender of the arts and, later in life, growing into an adamant supporter of Americans' right to bear arms, Heston was more than just an epic film hero.

Notorious bad-boy actor and singer Frank Sinatra once quipped: "That guy Heston has to watch it. If he's not careful, he'll get actors a good name."

Born John Charlton Carter on October 4, 1923 in Evanston, Illinois, Heston created his pseudonym by combining his mother's maiden name, Charlton, with his stepfather's name, Heston.

Growing up in rural Michigan, Heston was a shy child. One of just 13 students attending a one-room school there, he had few friends, but after his family moved to suburban Chicago, he got more involved, playing high school football and acting in plays.

From there, he went to nearby Northwestern University, served in the Air Force in World War II and eventually landed on Broadway, making his debut in Antony and Cleopatra.

He was also among the first Broadway actors to make a successful transition to television in the 1950s, when the small screen was on the rise, appearing in Macbeth, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, among other classics.

In a career that spanned half a century, Heston made 62 films, including, more recently, 1999's Any Given Sunday and 2001's Town and Country.

He also triumphantly returned to television in the 1980s with a role in the hit series Dynasty. With his roles, he has spanned five millennia and represented a dozen different ethnicities.

"I've played cardinals and cowboys, kings and quarterbacks, presidents and painters, cops and conmen," he once said, summing up the myriad roles he has played.

Though he was perhaps at his best in blockbuster epics like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, Heston also mastered the science-fiction genre with roles in films like the 1960s cult classic Planet of the Apes.

Anthony Mann, who directed Heston in El Cid, said that "Charlton is the ideal actor for the epic. Apart from his physical attributes, he can handle a horse, a sword, a chariot, a lance - anything - as though he were made for it." This versatility and natural talent helped him win the best actor Oscar in 1959 for Ben-Hur, as well as awards from more than 20 other countries.

But activism was another key role that Heston played in his lifetime. A six-term president of the Screen Actors Guild, from 1965 to 1971, he also served as chairman of the American Film Institute and was chosen by former US president and onetime actor Ronald Reagan to co-chair the White House Task Force on the Arts and Humanities.

He also won the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Jean Hersholt Award in 1977 for his humanitarian work. Heston was an avid civil rights activist who marched alongside Martin Luther King Junior during the 1963 March on Washington.

After going into remission following a bout with prostate cancer, he issued a statement in August 2002 acknowledging that he had symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, saying: "For an actor, there is no greater loss than the loss of his audience. I can part the Red Sea, but I can't part with you, which is why I won't exclude you from this stage of my life."

Heston vowed to work when he could and rest when needed, adding: "If you see a little less spring to my step, if your name fails to leap to my lips, you'll know why." Heston is survived by his wife of 64 years, Lydia, their two children and three grandchildren.