Best known in his later years as the outspoken president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), the actor Charlton Heston first earned a reputation in Hollywood for playing larger-than-life figures in epic movies such as The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur. He was born on October 4, 1923 in Evanston, Illinois. Heston caught the acting bug in high school; he later attended Northwestern University. He landed his first major role in a 1947 production of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra on Broadway, and three years later made his film debut in dark City. Impressed with the young actor’s screen presence, the legendary director Cecil B. DeMille cast Heston as the manager of a circus in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Four years later, DeMille gave Heston the role that would make him famous that of the biblical hero Moses in The Ten Commandments.
With his leading-man status confirmed, Heston went on to star in other notable films for Hollywood’s best directors. In 1958, he played a Mexican narcotics detective in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evill, appearing opposite Welles himself. Another biblical epic, Ben-Hur (1959), directed by William Wyler, won a then-record 11 Academy Awards (a mark that was later tied by Titanic in 1998 and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King in 2004). Heston took home an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of a rebellious young aristocrat in ancient Judea.
In all, Heston would appear in some 100 movies on the big and small screens over the course of his lengthy career. Heston parlayed his rugged onscreen persona into a forceful role at the head of the NRA’s campaign against what it saw as the federal government’s attempts to encroach on the constitutional right to bear arms. In 2000, he made a memorable speech at the NRA’s annual convention, bringing his audience to their feet with the rousing claim that gun-control advocates would have to pry his gun “from my cold, dead hands!” Meanwhile, Heston continued acting through the 1990s, making one of his final film appearances (uncredited) in Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes. He died on April 5, 2008 and is buried at St. Matthews Episcopal Church Columbarium, Pacific Palisades, California.