The American actor Charlton Heston (1923–2008) was an icon of the blockbuster American film for a period stretching from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. In later life, Heston was notable as a spokesperson for gun rights and for lending his support to conservative causes.
Possessing craggy good looks that exuded authority and strength, actor Charlton Heston was a natural for epic films such as The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Perhaps his best-known role was in Ben-Hur, a 1959 film featuring a nine-minute chariot race in which Heston—as part of a year-long preparation—learned to drive a Roman chariot. After his Academy Award–winning performance in that film, he remained a consistent box-office draw for many years, taking lead roles in major action and sci-fi films such as the original Planet of the Apes (1968) in middle age. Heston was unafraid to declare his political views throughout his career: as a young man he was a supporter of civil rights and other liberal causes, but in the 1970s his beliefs shifted to the right. As president of the National Rifle Association from 1998 to 2003, Heston popularized the gun owner's rallying cry that he would give up his gun only if it was pried “from my cold, dead hands.”
Heston was born John Charles Carter on October 4, 1923, in an unincorporated forested area near Wilmette and Evanston, Illinois, known as No Man's Land (both cities have been listed as his birthplace.) Heston's mother called him Charlton, a family name drawn from her noble English ancestry, and he would eventually use this name professionally although family members called him Chuck.
The Carter family moved to St. Helen in northern Michigan when Heston was young, and his father operated a lumber mill there. The Carters lived in a small cabin, and he grew up mostly outdoors, with hunting and fishing a natural part of his environment. After his parents divorced in 1933, his mother moved back to Chicago's North Shore suburbs, settling in Winnetka. When she married Chester Heston, Charlton took a new surname. As Heston was later quoted as saying by Robert Selle in The World and I, his parents' divorce “was then and still remains the most traumatic experience of my life, including World War II.”
Upon his return stateside, Heston moved to New York City and worked as a model while trying to break into theater. Finally, he landed a small role in a Broadway production of William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. When this production went on tour nationwide, it brought Heston new opportunities, including leading roles in summer-stock plays. With his résumé growing, he landed parts in five Shakespeare plays performed on the nascent CBS television network in the late 1940s. At first, Heston preferred theater and television to film, but when producer Hal Wallis spotted him performing in Rochester, New York, and offered him a five-film contract, he said yes.
Heston's first professional film, 1950's Dark City, was a noir thriller produced by Wallis and directed by William Dieterle. Wallis billed him as the star even though costar Lizabeth Scott had a longer career, but his true breakthrough came in 1952 with The Greatest Show on Earth, a drama with a circus setting. The film was directed by the spare-no-expenses Cecil B. DeMille, who had spotted Heston on a Paramount studio lot and thought that he had the right authoritative look for the role of the circus manager. The Greatest Show on Earth won an Academy Award for Best Picture and made Heston a familiar figure to cinemagoers.
That same year, Heston appeared opposite Jennifer Jones in Ruby Gentry, a romance directed by King Vidor. The screenplay required Jones to slap Heston across the face, and a bone in her hand broke when it came into contact with his angular physiognomy.
Through the 1950s, Heston won lead roles in swashbuckling adventure films such as Secret of the Incas, a 1954 production that was an inspiration for the later Indiana Jones films. 1955's The Far Horizons featured Heston as William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and both The President's Lady (1953) and The Buccaneer (1958) saw him cast as U.S. president Andrew Jackson. Most spectacular of all was The Ten Commandments, a 1956 film that reunited Heston with DeMille in an epic re-creation of the biblical Book of Exodus. Here he played Moses as both a young and an old man, and the film prompted noted director William Wyler to remark (as quoted by the London Times) that Heston's nose, enlarged by a high school football injury, made him “the best imitation Jew in Hollywood.” His range extended beyond these epics, however, as he showed by playing a Mexican police officer in director Orson Welles's 1958 border noir Touch of Evil.
Wyler would direct Heston in Ben-Hur, casting the actor as another Jewish figure, Judah Ben-Hur, whose life intersects with that of Jesus Christ during biblical times. Always notable for the diligence with which he researched his roles, Heston acquired both chariot-driver's and oarsman's skills during the filming of the lavish production. Ben-Hur won 11 Academy Awards, including Heston's own Best Actor statuette. The chariot race, in which he and his Roman competitor (played by Stephen Boyd) whip imported Lipizzaner stallions forward in a spectator-packed arena, remains a cinematic high point due to its clashing wheels and hyperkinetic action.
His appearance in Ben-Hur led Heston to be cast in a series of historical epics, including El Cid (1961), in which he played a medieval warrior. 1965 saw him in two critically acclaimed roles: as John the Baptist in the biblical drama The Greatest Story Ever Told and as the artist Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy. In 1970 he played Mark Antony in an adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, a role he had already performed in an experimental 1950 film made outdoors in public spaces in Chicago. Beginning in the late 1960s, Heston attracted directors of blockbuster science-fiction and adventure films, including Planet of the Apes (1968), The Omega Man (1971), Soylent Green (1973), and Earthquake (1974). Returning to Shakespeare, he directed and starred in a film version of Antony and Cleopatra in 1973, but the film was unsuccessful commercially.
Heston maintained a high level of political activism for much of his career. In 1963 he attended the March on Washington led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he supported several Democratic political candidates. He was active on behalf of his fellow screen performers and their affiliation with organized labor, serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) from 1965 to 1971. Like Ronald Reagan, a prior SAG president, his politics shifted sharply rightward during the last years of the Vietnam War. He campaigned for Reagan during the former actor's successful run for U.S. president and was named by Reagan to co-chair the President's Task Force on the Arts and Humanities.
Heston's conservative orientation strengthened as he grew older, especially in regard to firearms and gun rights. He expressed his opposition to gun control while campaigning for Republican candidates in 1996, and the following year he was elected to the presidency of the National Rifle Association (NRA). At a 2000 meeting of this group, while giving a speech opposing Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, Heston held a musket above his head and declared that anyone taking his gun would have to take it “from my cold, dead hands.” Although he did not coin the phrase, which had appeared on an NRA bumper sticker, he helped to popularize it.
Eliot, Marc, Charlton Heston: Hollywood's Last Icon, HarperCollins, 2017.
New York Times, April 7, 2008, Robert Berkvist, “Charlton Heston: Epic Film Star and Voice of the NRA, Is Dead at 84,” p. B7.
Times (London, England), April 7, 2008, “Charlton Heston Obituary,” p. 49.
World and I, July 1998, Robert Selle, “Hollywood Conservative,” p. 54.□