Born in Evanston, IL, Heston was the son of a mill owner who found his life's ambition in acting and found his first big breaks on the Broadway stage and in the nascent medium of television. He made his debut in the 1950 film noir thriller Dark City, and within two years headlined (alongside established stars Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde) the 1952 Best Picture Oscar winner, The Greatest Show on Earth, directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Though he continued to work in a number of lower-profile films, including Ruby Gentry and The Naked Jungle, it was DeMille who in 1956 gave the actor one of his most iconic roles, that of Moses in the Biblical epic The Ten Commandments, a sweeping, captivating, over-the-top film that pioneered cinematic special effects with its parting of the Red Sea, and in its depiction of the turbulent political lives and love lives of its stars -- Heston, Yul Brynner as the Pharoah and Anne Baxter as the woman torn between them -- became the quintessential studio epic of its time, favored as much for its close-to-camp emotional broadness as well as its impressive scale. Heston did a 180-degree turnaround from that statuesque role with 1958's Touch of Evil, the Orson Welles thriller that remains a classic to this day in which he played a Mexican narcotics officer drawn into a lurid drug ring. Heston won his Best Actor Oscar in 1959 for another lavish, larger-than-life historical epic, Ben-Hur, which with its famed chariot race and story set against the backdrop of ancient Rome won a record 11 Academy Awards, a feat not equalled until Titanic's similar win in 1997.
After Ben-Hur, Heston's status as a star was firmly cemented, and throughout the 1960s roles in such films as El Cid, 55 Days at Peking, The Greatest Story Ever Told (where he played John the Baptist), The Agony and the Ecstasy (his Michelangelo going up against Rex Harrison's Pope Julius II), and Khartoum followed. He found another legendary screen character in 1968's Planet of the Apes, as an astronaut who finds himself on a futuristic Earth now populated by evolved simians who have enslaved the human race. As with his other roles, Heston perfectly balanced the camp aspects of the story with a gravitas that helped ground the sci-fi thriller with a modern-day resonance that helped audiences identify with the hero's plight. (Heston briefly reprised his role in the sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes). The 1970s saw the actor again in futuristic roles in The Omega Man (based on the same story as last year's I Am Legend) and Soylent Green, as well as the disaster epics Airport 1975 and Earthquake. Heston's later film career was made up primarily of thrillers (Gray Lady Down, Two-Minute Warning, The Awakening), television appearances (most notably in Dynasty and its spinoff, The Colbys), and cameos in a variety of high-profile films (Wayne's World 2, Tombstone, True Lies, Hamlet, Any Given Sunday, and the remake of Planet of the Apes, among others). By 1978, Heston had received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild; on the down side, he also regrettably won a Razzie award in 2002 for his supporting performances in Cats & Dogs and Town and Country.
Heston's film career often became overshadowed by his political activities. In the 1960s he was an early, vocal and visible participant in the Civil Rights movement; joining Martin Luther King's march on Washington. In the 1980s and onward, as the former president of the Screen Actors Guild and onetime chairman of the American Film Institute he championed conservative causes and campaigned aggressively against gun control, becoming president of the National Rifle Association in 1998 and speaking out against then-President Bill Clinton on the subject. Becoming yet another icon, Heston found himself revered and reviled by supporters on both sides of the issue and became the surprising center of a highly emotional culture war, using his fame to speak out in favor of a number of conservative issues (he changed his political stance from Democrat to Republican in the late 1980s). Using his position as a Time-Warner stock holder he castigated the company for profiting from the sales of an Ice-T album which included the song "Cop Killer," reading the lyrics to the song aloud at a stockholder meeting. His career as gun-control opponent reached an apotheosis with his appearance in 2000 when he vowed that they could take his guns when they pried the weapons "from my cold, dead hands." Later, in Michael Moore's 2002 Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine, a visibly diminished Heston refused to answer Moore's barrage of questions regarding gun deaths, particularly for the callousness of Heston attending an NRA meeting in Denver shortly after the nearby Columbine school massacres. A year later, Heston received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and he officially disclosed that he was battling Alzheimer's; he consequently withdrew from public life.
Heston is survived by his wife Lydia Clarke, to whom he was married 64 years, and their two children, Fraser Clarke Heston and Holly Heston Rochell. --Mark Englehart, IMDb staff