John Charles Carter was born on October 4, 1923, in Evanston, Illinois. He took his stepfather’s last name, Heston, after his parents divorced and his mother remarried in the 1930s. Later, after he began his acting career, he took his mother’s surname, Charlton, as his professional first name.
He made his film debut in an amateur production of Peer Gynt (1941) and, after Air Force war service and further theater experience, his Broadway debut in Antony and Cleopatra (1947).
With his deep voice and noble physique, Heston portrayed historic or heroic roles in several epics.
He parted the Red Sea as Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956) and won an unforgettable chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959), which won 11 Oscars, including best actor for Heston.
He also played an 11th-century Spanish warrior in El Cid (1961), British Gen. Charles “Chinese” Gordon fighting an Islamic warrior priest in Khartoum (1966) and an astronaut held captive by a society of intelligent gorilla rulers in Planet of the Apes (1968).
He also displayed his skill as a character actor, playing a Mexican narcotics officer in the thriller Touch of Evil (1958), an 11th-century Norman authority figure in The War Lord (1965) and an aging, illiterate cowboy in Will Penny (1967).
Frequently returning to the stage, he also directed for film and television, including Antony and Cleopatra (1972) and A Man for All Seasons (1988). Later film appearances included The Awakening (1980), True Lies (1994) as the boss of spy Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Any Given Sunday (1999).
Heston was also president of the Screen Actors Guild (1965-71), helped create the American Film Institute and actively supported the National Endowment for the Arts.
A champion of civil rights (he participated in Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 civil rights march in Washington, D.C.), Heston also served as president of the U.S. National Rifle Association (1998-2003).
Heston revealed in 2002 that he had symptoms consistent with Alzheimer’s disease, saying, “I must reconcile courage and surrender in equal measure.”
In 2003, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for his accomplishments in movies and politics. He was also awarded by the American Film Institute to honor acting talent.
Heston died April 5, 2008, at his home in Beverly Hills, California. His wife Lydia was at his side. The cause of death was not released, but he had symptoms consistent with Alzheimer’s disease.