Steely jawed, hard bodied, terse in speech, Charlton Heston was an American man's man, an epic unto himself. While he played modern men, he was at his best when portraying larger-than-life figures from world history, preferably with his shirt off. He was born John Charles Carter on October 4, 1924 and originally trained in the classics in Northwestern University's drama program, gaining early experience playing the lead in a 1941 filmed school production of Peer Gynt. He also performed on the radio, and then went on to serve in the Air Force for three years during WWII. Afterwards, he went to work as a model in New York, where he met his wife, fellow model Lydia Clarke, to whom he remained married until his death. Later the two operated a theater in Asheville, North Carolina where Heston honed his acting skills. He made his Broadway debut in Katharine Cornell's 1947 production of Anthony and Cleopatra and subsequently went on to be a staple of the highly-regarded New York-based Studio One live television anthology where he played such classic characters as Heathcliff, Julius Caesar and Petruchio. The show made Heston a star.
He made his Hollywood film debut in William Dieterle's film noir Dark City playing opposite Lizabeth Scott. Even though she was more established in Hollywood, it was Heston who received top billing. He went on to appear as a white man raised in Indian culture in The Savage (1952) and then as a snob who snubs a country girl in King Vidor's Ruby Gentry (1952). His big break came when Cecil B. DeMille cast him as the bitter circus manager Brad Braden in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952).
In subsequent films, Heston began developing his persona of an unflinching hero with a piercing blue-eyed stare and unbending, self-righteous Middle American ethics. Heston's heroes could be violent and cruel, but only when absolutely necessary. He began a long stint of playing historical characters with his portrayal of Buffalo Bill in Pony Express and then Andrew Jackson in The President's Lady (both 1953). Heston's star burned at its brightest when DeMille cast him as the stern Moses in the lavish The Ten Commandments (1956). From there, Heston went on to headline numerous spectaculars which provided him the opportunity to play every one from John the Baptist to Michelangelo to El Cid to General "Chinese" Gordon. In 1959, Heston won an Academy Award for the title role in William Wyler's Ben Hur. By the mid-1960s, the reign of the epic film passed and Heston began appearing in westerns (Will Penny) and epic war dramas (Midway). He also did sci-fi films, the most famous of which were the campy satire Planet of the Apes (1968), The Omega Man (1970) and the cult favorite Soylent Green (1973). The '70s brought Heston into a new kind of epic, the disaster film, and he appeared in three, notably Airport 1975. From the late '80s though the '90s, Heston has returned to television, appearing in series, miniseries and made-for TV movies. He also appeared in such films as Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996) and 1998's Armageddon (as the narrator).
Outside of his film work, Heston served six terms as the president of the Screen Actors Guild and also chaired the American Film Institute. Active in such charities as The Will Rogers Institute, he was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 1977 Oscar ceremony. Known as a conservative Republican and proud member of the National Rifle Association, Heston worked closely with his long-time colleague and friend President Ronald Reagan as the leader of the president's task force on arts and the humanities. He made two of his final film appearances in the disastrous Warren Beatty-Diane Keaton sex farce Town and Country (2001) (in a parodistic role, as a shotgun wielding arsonist who burns Beatty's cabin to the ground) and as himself in Michael Moore's documentary Bowling For Columbine (2002) (in which he stormed out of an interview after Moore pummeled him with gun-related questions). Heston died in the spring of 2008 at age 84; although the cause of death was officially undisclosed, he had revealed several years prior that he was suffering from Alzheimer's Disease.