Charlton Heston, who won the 1959 best actor Oscar as the chariot-racing "Ben-Hur" and portrayed Moses, Michelangelo, El Cid and other heroic figures in movie epics of the '50s and '60s, has died. He was 84.
The actor died Saturday night at his home in Beverly Hills with his wife, Lydia, at his side, family spokesman Bill Powers said.
Heston revealed in 2002 that he had symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease, saying, "I must reconcile courage and surrender in equal measure."
Heston lent his strong presence to some of the most acclaimed and successful films of the midcentury. "Ben-Hur" won 11 Academy Awards, tying it for the record with the more recent "Titanic" (1997) and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (2003). Heston's other movies included "The Ten Commandments," "El Cid," "55 Days at Peking," "Planet of the Apes" and "Earthquake."
He served as president of the Screen Actors Guild and chairman of the American Film Institute and marched in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Later in life he campaigned for conservative candidates. In June 1998, Heston was elected president of the National Rifle Association, for which he had posed for ads holding a rifle.
At his birth in a Chicago suburb on Oct. 4, 1923, his name was Charles Carter. His parents moved to St. Helen, Mich., where his father, Russell Carter, operated a lumber mill. Growing up in the Michigan woods with almost no playmates, young Charles read books of adventure and devised his own games while wandering the countryside with his rifle.
Charles's parents divorced, and his mother married Chester Heston, a factory plant superintendent in Wilmette, Ill., an upscale north Chicago suburb.
Calling himself Charlton Heston from his mother's maiden name and his stepfather's last name, he won an acting scholarship to Northwestern University in 1941. He excelled in campus plays and appeared on Chicago radio. In 1943, he enlisted in the Army Air Force and served as a radio-gunner in the Aleutians.
In 1944 he married another Northwestern drama student, Lydia Clarke, and after his Army discharge in 1947, they moved to New York to seek acting jobs. Finding none, they hired on as codirectors and principal actors at a summer theater in Asheville, N.C.
Back in New York, both Hestons began finding work. With his strong 6-foot-2 build and craggily handsome face, Heston won roles in TV soap operas, plays ("Antony and Cleopatra" with Katherine Cornell) and live TV dramas such as "Julius Caesar," "Macbeth," "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Of Human Bondage."
Heston wrote several books: "The Actor's Life: Journals 1956-1976," published in 1978; "Beijing Diary: 1990," concerning his direction of the play "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" in Chinese; "In the Arena: An Autobiography," 1995; and "Charlton Heston's Hollywood: 50 Years of American Filmmaking," 1998.