The Kennedy Center

Charlton Heston


Charlton Heston
(actor; born October 4, 1924, Evanston, Illinois; died April 5, 2008, Beverly Hills, California)
"I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be an actor," says Charlton Heston. For nearly half a century, Charlton Heston has not only been one of the most successful actors in the history of Hollywood, he has become the face most of us see whenever we encounter the names Moses, John the Baptist, Andrew Jackson, Michelangelo, El Cid, or Ben Hur. "I've played cardinals and cowboys," he says, "kings and quarterbacks, presidents and painters, cops and conmen." Add a couple of saints and sinners, Marc Antony, a warlord from the middle ages, and the manager of the greatest show on earth and you have a vibrant portrait of a consummate actor who has left an indelible impression on a monumental range of roles, covering 5,000 years of past and future history and a dozen different nationalities.

Heston won the Academy Award for his portrayal of the fictional biblical-era hero Ben-Hur in William Wyler's 1959 spectacular of the same name, and more than any other single person was responsible for the extraordinary popularity of the epic motion pictures that ruled international cinema during the 1950s and ‘60s. Anthony Mann, Heston's director in El Cid, said, "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. He's incredible. Put a toga on him and he looks perfect." The whole world agrees, and he has been honored with awards from more than 20 countries.

Heston spent his youth in a backwoods town in Michigan, a shy boy with few friends. He attended a one-room school with a pump in front. There were 13 pupils, three were his cousins, and he was the only student in his grade level. Eventually the family moved to the Chicago suburbs, where he played football in high school and got a taste of his future life in amateur theatricals. He liked pretending to be other people, and his acting led to a scholarship to Northwestern University. There he blossomed and soon headed for Broadway after serving in the Air Force during World War II.

His debut was in Antony and Cleopatra in Katharine Cornell's company. Starring roles in Leaf and Bough and Design for a Stained Glass Window followed. During the early ‘50s, when television regularly broadcast classic dramas, Heston appeared in Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, Of Human Bondage, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights, becoming one of the first Broadway actors to achieve success in the new medium.

He first drew Hollywood's attention after playing Antony in a 16mm version of Julius Caesar, and in 1952 Cecil B. De Mille signed him for The Greatest Show on Earth. The film won the Academy Award as Best Picture of the Year, and Charlton Heston was on his way to one of the most memorable film careers of the century. Four years later, director and star would reunite to create the definitive biblical epic, The Ten Commandments. The picture opened triumphantly in 1956 and put Heston at the forefront of leading men. Always modest about his success, Heston says "If you can't make a career out of two De Mille pictures, well I guess you'll never make it." Make it he did with 62 movies thus far that include Khartoum, Ruby Gentry, 55 Days at Peking, The Big Country, The Agony and the Ecstasy, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Touch of Evil, The War Lord, Major Dundee, Will Penny, Planet of the Apes, The Three Musketeers, The Omega Man, Diamond Head, Naked Jungle, Number One, Soylent Green, Earthquake, True Lies, Tombstone, Two-Minute Warning, and even Wayne's World 2.

He's also found time to continue his stage career (as he says, "to renew my passport") starring in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Macbeth with Vanessa Redgrave, Long Day's Journey into Night with Deborah Kerr, Crucifer of Blood as Sherlock Homes, Detective Story, and in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, a box office hit on both coasts as well as in London, where the Daily Express wrote of Heston's "towering central performance of immense heroic stature."

Off the stage and away from the screen, Heston has worked tirelessly on behalf of the arts. He has been the United States delegate to the Berlin Film Festival, visited American troops in Vietnam three times, served as President of the Board for the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, and was a member of the National Council for the Arts. He served seven terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild, chairman of the American Film Institute, and was chosen by President Reagan to cochair the White House Task Force on the Arts and Humanities. In 1977, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored Heston with the Jean Hersholt Award for his humanitarian activities. Heston died on Saturday, April 5, 2008 at his home in Beverly Hills, California, with Lydia, his wife of 64 years, by his side.

As Frank Sinatra once observed: "That guy Heston has to watch it. If he's not careful, he'll get actors a good name."
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