Charlton Heston (1923-2008)

Dana Andrews
Charlton Heston

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Charlton Heston was one of Hollywood's most famous leading men. In his long career of over 60 years and 100 films, Heston built a reputation for portraying larger than life historical and Biblical figures in epic movies such as 'The Ten Commandments' in 1956, 'Ben Hur' in 1959, and 'The Big Country' in 1958. He was president of the Screen Actors Guild for five years from 1966.


Charlton Heston was born John Charles Carter on 4 October 1923, in Wilmette, a well-to-do suburb of Chicago, Illinois. His father ran a sawmill business and when John was still a baby he moved the family to St Helen, Michigan. Here John learned to hunt and fish in the heavily forested backwoods near the family home.

Early Years

His parents separated and divorced in 1933 when John was 10 years old. His mother soon remarried to a Chester Heston and moved the family back to Wilmette. John took the surname of his new stepfather. His later professional name came by adding his mother's maiden name (Lila Charlton).

He was a shy boy and tended to be a loner, often acting out to himself scenes from books he had read. When he attended the New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, it was stage acting that began to draw him out when he joined and performed in the school's dramatic society. He also joined the local Winnetka Community Theatre where he gained valuable acting experience. He was an athletic young man and was a keen swimmer and tennis player.

His acting abilities were recognised and his earliest film experience was in playing the lead in a filmed school production of Ibsen's 'Peer Gynt' in 1941. During this time he also did acting work on local radio stations. Convinced that acting was the career for him, Heston gained a drama scholarship and attended Northwestern University from 1941 to 1943 where he met his future wife, Lydia Clarke.

World War II

During the war Heston, still known as John Heston, served in the United States Army Air Forces, enlisting in 1944. He served as a radio operator aboard a B-29 bomber stationed in the Alaskan Aleutians.

After the war, with acting opportunities scarce, both he and his wife lived in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, both working as models at The Art Students League, to earn money. They were soon able to continue their acting education when they moved to Asheville, North Carolina to run and perform in the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Theatre.

On their return to New York in 1947 Heston began his rise to fame when he played a small supporting role to famous stage actress Katharine Cornell, on Broadway in 'Antony and Cleopatra'. He also began a long association with the new medium of television when he appeared in the 'Suspense' series in 1949. He continued with his television career, appearing, often as the romantic lead, in the 'Studio One' series from 1949 to 1952, which helped to confirm his status as a rising young acting star.

He was soon courted by the Hollywood studios and in 1950 he appeared in his first Hollywood movie, the film noir 'Dark City', co-starring Lizabeth Scott. His status as a genuine movie star was cemented with his second Hollywood movie in 1952, 'The Greatest Show on Earth', directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

Hollywood Star

Heston embarked on a series of films, almost a lifetime of films, in which he portrayed major historical and biblical figures. He started by playing Buffalo Bill Cody in 'The Pony Express' and Andrew Jackson in 'The President’s Lady', both in 1953, and continued famously as Moses in the highly successful 'The Ten Commandments' in 1956 which made him one of Hollywood's most celebrated actors.

'Ben-Hur' 1959

After the well regarded Orson Welles movie 'Touch of Evil' in 1958 Heston really hit the heights of popular success when he played the title role of 'Ben-Hur' in 1959. The movie was one of the most successful movies ever made and won eleven Academy Awards including the Best Actor Oscar for Heston.

During the next six years Heston continued his successful portrayal of major historical figures including El Cid in the film of that name in 1961, John the Baptist in 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' in 1964, Michelangelo in 'The Agony and the Ecstasy' the following year and General Charles Gordon in 'Khartoum' in 1966.

He remained a major star even when he changed genre to science fiction, as in 'Planet of the Apes' in 1968 and 'The Omega Man' in 1971 and Soylent Green in 1973. He also appeared in westerns (Will Penny) and epic naval war dramas with 'Midway' in 1976.

In the mid 1970's Heston changed direction again and jumped on the Disaster Movie bandwagon, with 'Earthquake' in 1974 and 'Airport 1975' the following year.

As his fame increased, Heston allowed his career path to take many twists and turns. He played Cardinal Richelieu in 'The Three Musketeers' in 1973, and 'The Four Musketeers: Milady's Revenge' the following year, his first supporting role for many years. He played Henry VIII in 'Crossed Swords' in 1978 and directed and starred in 'Mother Lode' in 1982 which was produced by his son, Fraser.

Later Career

. Heston's career got more varied as he got older. As his movie appearances became less frequent, so his appearances on television increased. He starred in the hit television series 'The Colbys from 1985-87 and continued to act in numerous television movies including 'A Man for All Seasons' in 1988, 'Treasure Island' in 1990 and 'Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232' in 1992.

For the rest of his career he continued to regularly appear in television series such as. 'The Bold and the Beautiful' in 1993, 'Camino de Santiago' in 1999 and 'The Outer Limits' in 2000. In 1998, Heston played himself in a cameo role in the American television comedy series 'Friends'. He also made cameo appearances in programs such as 'Wayne's World 2', in 1993 and narrated, unseen, in numerous productions, such as 'Texas' in 1994, 'Hercules' in 1997 and 'Bagpipe: Instrument of War - Part 2' in 1999.

Final Years

Heston never neglected his theatrical roots and continued to appear regularly on stage. His final stage role was with his wife, Lydia, in London's Haymarket Theater in 'Love Letters' in 1999.

He underwent treatment for alcoholism in 2000.

After making an uncredited cameo appearance in the remake of 'Planet of the Apes' in 2001, Heston's final movie role was in 2003 as Joseph Mengele in 'My Father, Rua Alguem'. Also in 2003 he made his final public appearance when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House from President George W. Bush/p>


Heston had a long and happy marriage to Lydia Clarke, whom he married in 1944 after they met as students at Northwestern University. The marriage lasted 64 years until his death. They had one son, Fraser, and adopted a daughter, Holly.

Heston was never afraid of voicing his political beliefs and he became almost as well known for his political views as for his acting career. He became strongly identified with traditional, right wing causes although early in his career he was a supporter of Martin Luther King and Civil Rights. He later became the much publicised president of the National Rifle Association, and famously declared that the government could only take away his gun from his "cold, dead hands".

He spent six terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and in 1977 he was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at that year's Oscar ceremony.

In 2002, he issued a statement, announcing that he had symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease.

Charlton Heston died from pneumonia on April 5, 2008, at his home in Beverly Hills, California.

Charlton Heston Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Actor ... Ben-Hur (1959)

Charlton Heston Filmography

Peer Gynt
Julius Caesar
Dark City
The Greatest Show on Earth
The Savage
Ruby Gentry
Three Lives (Short)
Pony Express
The President's Lady
Bad for Each Other
The Naked Jungle
Secret of the Incas
The Far Horizons
The Private War of Major Benson
Lucy Gallant
The Ten Commandments
Three Violent People
Touch of Evil
The Big Country
The Buccaneer
The Wreck of the Mary Deare
El Cid
The Pigeon That Took Rome
Diamond Head
55 Days at Peking
The Greatest Story Ever Told
Major Dundee
The Agony and the Ecstasy
The War Lord
Will Penny
Planet of the Apes
Number One
Beneath the Planet of the Apes
Julius Caesar
Master of the Islands
The Omega Man
Antony and Cleopatra
The Call of the Wild
Adventures of Mowgli (Narrator)
Soylent Green
The Three Musketeers
Airport 1975
The Four Musketeers: Milady's Revenge
The Fun of Your Life (Short)
The Last Hard Men
Two-Minute Warning
Crossed Swords
Gray Lady Down