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Hollywood Actor Charlton Heston Dies

Legendary Hollywood actor and political activist Charlton Heston has died at the age of 84. VOA's Kent Klein tells us more about the man who was known for playing larger-than-life figures in the movies, and for his conservative political activities off the screen.

Charlton Heston was a Hollywood icon. His square jaw, broad shoulders and resonant voice served him well in big-budget historical movies in the 1950s and 1960s.

He portrayed a series of heroic figures: Andrew Jackson, El Cid, John the Baptist, Michelangelo, Marc Antony, Cardinal Richelieu, King Henry the Eighth, and, in the 1956 Biblical epic The Ten Commandments, Moses.

"Fear not! Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord! The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us! Behold His mighty hand!"

Three years later, Heston won the Academy Award for Best Actor, for his portrayal of a chariot racer in ancient Rome, in Ben-Hur.

And he fought an army of gorillas in the successful science fiction series, Planet of the Apes.

As film critic Leonard Maltin says, Charlton Heston is best remembered for the big roles.

"He starred in Westerns and adventure films, in science fiction films," he said. "But he could never quite escape the identification with larger-than-life people."

Heston appeared in more than 70 films, as well as numerous stage productions and television programs.

He assumed the role of leader offscreen as well. Heston served as president of the Screen Actors Guild and chairman of the American Film Institute. He marched in the civil rights movement and supported Democratic candidates such as John F. Kennedy.

Later, Heston's political views grew more conservative. He campaigned for Republicans like Ronald Reagan, and in 1998, he was elected president of the National Rifle Association, a lobbying organization dedicated to protecting Americans' constitutional right to own guns.

At one NRA meeting he held a rifle over his head and said there was only one way anyone could take his gun away.

"From my cold, dead hands," said Charlton Heston.

"When he held up that firearm above his head and said 'from my cold, dead hands,' I mean, America understood that," said Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association's Executive Vice President.

"They are going, 'We are not going to lose our freedom to own firearms in this country, and these politicians are not going to take that away from us," LaPierre continued. "It is our right under the Constitution of the United States.' And he had an immediate connection with the American public when he did that."

Heston stepped down as NRA president in 2003. That same year, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Heston took a number of other controversial stands in his later years. He resigned from Actors Equity, claiming the union's refusal to allow a white actor to play a Eurasian role in Miss Saigon was racist. And he went to a Time Warner stockholders' meeting and condemned the company for releasing a rap album that he said encouraged the killing of police officers.

Heston's final battle was against Alzheimer's disease. He told the public about it in 2002.

"I am neither giving up nor giving in," said Heston. "I believe I am still the fighter that Dr. [Martin Luther] King and JFK and Ronald Reagan knew. But it is a fight I must someday call a draw."

A family spokesman did not comment on what caused Charlton Heston's death. He died at his home in Los Angeles, with his wife Lydia at his side. They had been married 64 years.