Charlton Heston was born John Charles Carter, the son of Lilla (née Charlton; 1899–1994) and Russell Whitford Carter (1897–1966), a sawmill operator. Most sources state that he was born in Evanston, Illinois. Heston's autobiography, however, and some other sources, place his birth in No Man's Land, Illinois, which usually refers to a then-unincorporated area now part of Wilmette, a wealthy northern suburb of Chicago. Heston said in a 1995 interview that he was not very good at remembering addresses or his early childhood.
Heston was of partly Scottish descent, including from the Clan Fraser. The majority of Heston's ancestry was English.
In his autobiography, Heston refers to his father participating in his family's construction business. When Heston was an infant, his father's work moved the family to St. Helen, Michigan. It was a rural, heavily forested part of the state, and Heston lived an isolated yet idyllic existence spending much time hunting and fishing in the backwoods of the area.
When Heston was 10 years old, his parents divorced. Shortly thereafter, his mother married Chester Heston. The new family moved back to Wilmette. Heston (his new surname) attended New Trier High School, in a rich Chicago suburb.
Throughout Heston's life he was known by friends as "Chuck" although his wife always called him "Charlie." His stage name Charlton Heston is drawn from his mother's maiden surname (Charlton) and his stepfather's surname (Heston), and was used for his first film, an adaptation of Ibsen's Peer Gynt.
Heston frequently recounted that, while growing up in northern Michigan in a sparsely populated area, he often wandered in the forest, "acting" out the characters from books he had read.Later, in high school, Heston enrolled in New Trier's drama program, playing in the silent 16 mm amateur film adaptation of Peer Gynt, from the Ibsen play, by future film activist David Bradley released in 1941. From the Winnetka Community Theatre (Or, the Winnetka Dramatist's Guild as it was then known) in which he was active, he earned a drama scholarship to Northwestern University. Several years later Heston teamed up with Bradley to produce the first sound version of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, in which Heston played Mark Antony.
World War II service
In 1944, Heston enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces. He served for two years as a radio operator and aerial gunner aboard a B-25 Mitchell stationed in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands with the Eleventh Air Force. He reached the rank of Staff Sergeant. Heston married Northwestern University student Lydia Marie Clarke in the same year he joined the military. After his service and rise to fame, Heston was chosen as a narrator for highly classified military and Department of Energy instructional films, particularly relating to nuclear weapons, and "for six years Heston [held] the nation's highest security clearance" or Q clearance." The Q clearance is similar to a DoD or Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) clearance of TS.
Theater and television
After the war, Heston and Clarke lived in Hell's Kitchen, New York City, where they worked as artists' models. Seeking a way to make it in theater, Heston and his wife Lydia decided to manage a playhouse in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1947. They made $100 a week. In 1948, they returned to New York where Heston was offered a supporting role in a Broadway revival of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, starring Katharine Cornell. In television, Heston played a number of roles in CBS's Studio One, one of the most popular anthology dramas of the 1950s. Film producer Hal B. Wallis of Casablanca spotted Heston in a 1950 television production of Wuthering Heights and offered him a contract. When his wife reminded Heston they had decided to pursue theater and television, he replied, "Well, maybe just for one film to see what it's like."
Heston most frequent stage roles included the title role in Macbeth, Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, and Mark Antony in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.
Heston's first professional movie appearance was in Dark City, a 1950 film noir. His breakthrough came when Cecil B. DeMille cast him as a circus manager in The Greatest Show on Earth, which was named by the Motion Picture Academy as the best picture of 1952. In 1953, Heston was Billy Wilder's first choice to play Sefton in Stalag 17. However, the role was given to William Holden, who won an Oscar for it. Heston became an icon for portraying Moses in the hugely successful film The Ten Commandments (1956), reportedly being chosen by director Cecil B. DeMille because he thought the muscular, 6 ft 3 in, square jawed Heston bore an uncanny resemblance to Michelangelo's statue of Moses. In 1955, he appeared with Jane Wyman in the film, Lucy Gallant, the story of a woman determined to hold on to her dress shop in a small Texas oil-boom community. In 1958, Heston played a Mexican police officer, Ramon Miguel Vargas, in Orson Welles's widely acclaimed film noir Touch of Evil.
After Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster and Rock Hudson turned down the title role in Ben-Hur (1959), Heston accepted the role, winning the Academy Award for Best Actor, one of the unprecedented eleven Oscars the film earned. After Moses and Ben-Hur, Heston became more identified with Biblical epics than any other actor. He voiced the role of Ben-Hur in a cartoon version of the Lew Wallace novel in 2003.
Heston played leading roles in a number of fictional and historical epics: El Cid (1961), 55 Days at Peking (1963), as Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), and Khartoum (1966). Heston also played the eponymous role in the western movie Will Penny (1968).
In 1965-71, Heston was the elected president of the Screen Actors Guild. The Guild had been created in 1933 for the benefit of actors, who had different interests than the producers and directors who controlled the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Heston was more conservative than most actors, and publicly clashed with the outspoken liberal actor Ed Asner.
In 1968, Heston starred in Planet of the Apes and in 1970, he had a smaller supporting role in the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Also in 1970, Heston portrayed Mark Antony again in another film version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. His co-stars included Jason Robards as Brutus, Richard Chamberlain as Octavius, Robert Vaughn as Casca, and English actors Richard Johnson as Cassius, John Gielgud as Caesar, and Diana Rigg as Portia. In 1971, he starred in the science fiction film, The Omega Man. Although critically panned, the film is now considered a classic of post-apocalyptic horror. In 1972, Heston made his directorial debut and starred as Mark Antony in an adaptation of the William Shakespeare play he had performed earlier in his theater career, Antony and Cleopatra. Hildegarde Neil was Cleopatra and English actor Eric Porter was Enobarbus. After receiving scathing reviews, the film was never released to theaters, and is rarely seen on television. It was finally released on DVD in March 2011. He subsequently starred in more successful films such as Soylent Green (1973) and Earthquake (1974).
Beginning with playing Cardinal Richelieu in 1973's The Three Musketeers, Heston was seen in an increasing number of supporting roles, cameos and live theater. From 1985 to 1987, he starred in his only prime-time stint on a television series in the soap, The Colbys. With his son Fraser, he produced and also starred in several TV movies, including remakes of Treasure Island and A Man For All Seasons. In 1992, Heston appeared on the A&E cable network in a short series of videos, Charlton Heston Presents the Bible, reading passages from the King James Version. Filmed in the Middle East, the series received excellent reviews, achieving great success on video and DVD. Never taking himself too seriously, he appeared in 1993 in a cameo role in Wayne's World 2, in a scene where the main character Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) requests casting a better actor for a small roll. After the scene is reshot with Heston, Campbell weeps in awe. That same year, Heston hosted Saturday Night Live. He had cameos in the films Hamlet, Tombstone and True Lies. He starred in many theatre productions at the Los Angeles Music Center, where he appeared in Detective Story and The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, and as Sherlock Holmes in The Crucifer of Blood opposite Jeremy Brett as Dr. Watson. Heston later won acclaim for a television production interpretation of the famous detective. In 2001, Heston made a cameo appearance as an elderly, dying chimpanzee in Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes. Heston's last film role was as the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele in My Father, Rua Alguem 5555, which had limited release (mainly to festivals) in 2003.
Heston's distinctive voice had also landed him roles as a film narrator, including Armageddon and Disney's Hercules.
Heston played the title role in Mister Roberts three times and cited it as one of his favorite roles. In the early 1990s, he tried unsuccessfully to revive and direct the show with Tom Selleck in the title role.
In 1995, Heston starred with Peter Graves, Mickey Rooney and Deborah Winters in the Warren Chaney docudrama America: A Call to Greatness. In 1998, Heston had a cameo role playing himself in The One with Joey's Dirty Day on the American television series Friends.
Heston campaigned for Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. Reportedly, when in 1961 an Oklahoma movie theater premiering his movie El Cid was segregated, he joined a picket line outside. Heston makes no reference to this in his autobiography, but describes traveling to Oklahoma City to picket segregated restaurants, to the chagrin of Allied Artists, the producers of El Cid. During the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom held in Washington, D.C. in 1963, he accompanied Martin Luther King Jr. In later speeches, Heston said he helped the civil rights cause "long before Hollywood found it fashionable." However, in the 1964 election, he was a supporter of Barry Goldwater, an opponent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Heston initially supported Johnson, until he saw an "In Your Heart You Know He's Right" billboard and remarked, "Son of a bitch, he is right."
Following the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, Heston and actors Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, and James Stewart issued a statement calling for support of President Johnson's Gun Control Act of 1968. He opposed the Vietnam War during its course (though he changed his opinion in the years following the war) and in 1969 was approached by the Democratic Party to run for the U.S. Senate. He agonized over the decision but ultimately determined he could never give up acting. He is reported to have voted for Richard Nixon in 1972, though Nixon is not mentioned in his autobiography.
By the 1980s, Heston supported gun rights and changed his political affiliation from Democrat to Republican. When asked why he changed political alliances, Heston replied "I didn't change. The Democratic party changed." He campaigned for Republicans and Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.
Heston resigned from Actors Equity, claiming the union's refusal to allow a white actor to play a Eurasian role in Miss Saigon was "obscenely racist". He said CNN's telecasts from Baghdad were "sowing doubts" about the allied effort in the 1990–91 Gulf War."
At a Time Warner stockholders' meeting, Heston castigated the company for releasing an Ice-T album which included a song "Cop Killer" about killing police officers.
While filming The Savage, Heston was initiated by blood into the Miniconjou Lakota Nation, but claimed no natural American Indian heritage. He claimed to be "native American" to salvage the term from exclusively referring to American Indians.
In 1993, Heston teamed up with John Anthony West and Robert M. Schoch in an Emmy Award winning NBC special called "The Mystery of the Sphinx". The documentary proposed a much earlier date for the construction of the Great Sphinx than originally suggested. Heston when hosting the documentary suggested that the main type of weathering evident on the Great Sphinx and surrounding enclosure walls could only have been caused by prolonged and extensive rainfall, and the whole structure was carved out of limestone bedrock by an ancient advanced culture (such as the Heavy Neolithic Qaraoun culture).
In a 1997 Fighting the Culture War in America speech, Heston rhetorically deplored a culture war he said was being conducted by a generation of media people, educators, entertainers, and politicians against:
"...the God fearing, law-abiding, Caucasian, middle-class Protestant – or even worse, evangelical Christian, Midwestern or Southern – or even worse, rural, apparently straight – or even worse, admitted heterosexuals, gun-owning – or even worse, NRA-card-carrying, average working stiff – or even worse, male working stiff – because, not only don’t you count, you are a down-right obstacle to social progress. Your voice deserves a lower decibel level, your opinion is less enlightened, your media access is insignificant, and frankly, mister, you need to wake up, wise up, and learn a little something from your new-America and until you do, would you mind shutting up?"
He went on to say:
"The Constitution was handed down to guide us by a bunch of wise old dead white guys who invented our country! Now some flinch when I say that. Why! It's true-they were white guys! So were most of the guys that died in Lincoln's name opposing slavery in the 1860s. So why should I be ashamed of white guys? Why is "Hispanic Pride" or "Black Pride" a good thing, while "White Pride" conjures shaven heads and white hoods? Why was the Million Man March on Washington celebrated by many as progress, while the Promise Keepers March on Washington was greeted with suspicion and ridicule? I’ll tell you why: Cultural warfare!"
In an address to students at Harvard Law School entitled Winning the Cultural War, Heston said, "If Americans believed in political correctness, we'd still be King George's boys – subjects bound to the British crown."
He said to the students:
"You are the best and the brightest. You, here in this fertile cradle of American academia, here in the castle of learning on the Charles River. You are the cream. But I submit that you and your counterparts across the land are the most socially conformed and politically silenced generation since Concord Bridge. And as long as you validate that and abide it, you are, by your grandfathers' standards, cowards."
Heston later stated, "Political correctness is tyranny with manners."
In a speech to the National Press Club in 1997, Heston said, "Now, I doubt any of you would prefer a rolled up newspaper as a weapon against a dictator or a criminal intruder."
Heston was the president (a largely ceremonial position) and spokesman of the NRA from 1998 until he resigned in 2003. At the 2000 NRA convention, he raised a rifle over his head and declared that a potential Al Gore administration would take away his Second Amendment rights "from my cold, dead hands". This role in the NRA was at the center of a satirical video starring Jim Carrey which sparked controversy as Fox News took Carrey to task on his depiction of Heston and Carrey responded. In announcing his resignation in 2003, he again raised a rifle over his head, repeating the five famous words of his 2000 speech. He was an honorary life member.
In the 2002 film Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore interviewed Heston at Heston's home, asking him about an April 1999 meeting the NRA held in Denver, Colorado shortly after the Columbine high school massacre. Moore criticized Heston for the perceived thoughtlessness in the timing and location of the meeting. When Moore asked Heston for his thoughts on why gun-related homicide is so much higher in the United States than in other countries, Heston said it was because "we have probably more mixed ethnicity." Heston subsequently, on-camera, excused himself and walked away. Moore was later criticized for having conducted the interview in what some viewed as an ambush style, particularly in light of Heston's recently having revealed that he had symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
In April 2003 Heston sent a message of support to US forces in the Iraq war, attacking opponents of the war as "pretend patriots."
Heston opposed abortion and did the introduction to a 1987 Bernard Nathanson pro-life documentary, Eclipse of Reason, which focuses on late-term abortions. Heston served on the Advisory Board of Accuracy in Media, a conservative media watchdog group founded by Reed Irvine.
Later life and death
In 1996, Heston had a hip replacement. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1998. Following a course of radiation treatment, the cancer went into remission. In 2000, he publicly disclosed that he had been treated for alcoholism at a Utah clinic in May–June of that year. On August 9, 2002, Heston publicly announced (via a taped message) he was diagnosed with symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease. In July 2003, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House from President George W. Bush. In March 2005, various newspapers reported that family and friends were shocked by the progression of his illness, and that he was sometimes unable to get out of bed.
Heston died on April 5, 2008, at his home in Beverly Hills, California, with Lydia, his wife of 64 years, by his side. He was also survived by his son, Fraser Clarke Heston, and daughter, Holly Ann Heston. The cause of death was not disclosed by the family. A month later media outlets reported his death was due to complications with pneumonia. Heston's family released a statement, reading:
Charlton Heston was seen by the world as larger than life. He was known for his chiselled jaw, broad shoulders and resonating voice, and, of course, for the roles he played. No one could ask for a fuller life than his. No man could have given more to his family, to his profession and to his country.
— Family of Charlton Heston
Early tributes came in from leading figures; President George W. Bush called Heston "a man of character and integrity, with a big heart", adding, "He served his country during World War II, marched in the civil rights movement, led a labor union and vigorously defended Americans’ Second Amendment rights." Former First Lady Nancy Reagan said that she was "heartbroken" over Heston's death and released a statement, reading, "I will never forget Chuck as a hero on the big screen in the roles he played, but more importantly I considered him a hero in life for the many times that he stepped up to support Ronnie in whatever he was doing."
Heston's funeral was held a week later on April 12, 2008, in a ceremony which was attended by 250 people including Nancy Reagan and Hollywood stars such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olivia de Havilland, Keith Carradine, Pat Boone, Tom Selleck, Oliver Stone (who had cast Heston in his 1999 movie Any Given Sunday), Rob Reiner, and Christian Bale.
The funeral was held at Episcopal Parish of St. Matthew's Church in Pacific Palisades, California, the church where Heston regularly worshipped and attended Sunday services since the early 1980s. He was cremated and his ashes were given to his family.
Richard Corliss wrote in Time magazine, "From start to finish, Heston was a grand, ornery anachronism, the sinewy symbol of a time when Hollywood took itself seriously, when heroes came from history books, not comic books. Epics like Ben-Hur or El Cid simply couldn't be made today, in part because popular culture has changed as much as political fashion. But mainly because there's no one remotely like Charlton Heston to infuse the form with his stature, fire and guts."
In his obituary for the actor, film critic Roger Ebert noted "Heston made at least three movies that almost everybody eventually sees: Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments and Planet of the Apes."
Heston's cinematic legacy was the subject of Cinematic Atlas: The Triumphs of Charlton Heston, an eleven-film retrospective by the Film Society of theLincoln Center that was shown at the Walter Reade Theater from August 29 to September 4, 2008.
On April 17, 2010, Heston was inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum's Hall of Great Western Performers.
In his childhood hometown of St. Helen, Michigan, a new charter school, Charlton Heston Academy, opened on September 4, 2012. It is housed in the former St. Helen Elementary School. Enrollment on the first day was 220 students in grades Kindergarten through 8th.