Throughout their 64-year marriage, Lydia Heston never knew who would be joining her for breakfast. “Sometimes there was this man in medieval armor sitting at the table or someone reading the Dead Sea Scrolls,” relates author Brian Steel Wills. “And here she was, just trying to have an ordinary life and talk to her husband.”

Over his nearly 60 years in Hollywood, Charlton Heston played many iconic characters — from The Ten Commandments’ Moses to a stranded astronaut in Planet of the Apes to crafty Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers. “He didn’t want to be typecast. He was always trying to be a better actor,” says Wills, author of the new book Running the Race: The “Public Face” of Charlton Heston.

In real life, Charlton could be as imposing a personality as those he played. “He had this very strong sense of right and wrong and a very strong sense of pride,” explains Wills. “He was not the kind of person who did something for the sake of doing it. He always had a purpose and a mission.”

His early goal was just to do well as an actor. Hollywood discovered Charlton on Broadway, where he started building his reputation after a stint in the army. After six years of labor in small film roles, his star turn in 1956’s The Ten Commandments would make him one of the most famous actors in Hollywood — but Charlton refused to rest on his laurels.

Charlton Heston's Kids
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To play Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy, he taught himself to sculpt and paint. For Ben-Hur, he became a charioteer. “I worked six weeks learning how to manage the four white horses,” said the actor, who did 80 percent of his own stunts in the epic. “Nearly pulled my arms right out of their sockets!”

On the set, he demanded the same level of commitment from his coworkers. “He was extremely focused,” says Wills, “and could be hard on costars if he felt they were being more ‘star’ than actor. He could be intolerant of people who were not perfectionists.”


Starting in the 1960s, Charlton added his voice to causes he believed in. He spoke out against racism and called Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “a 20th-century Moses for his people.” He was president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1965 to 1971. He also served as president of the National Rifle Association for five terms, famously saying: “I’ll give you my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands.”

To Charlton, it felt right to be in favor of civil rights as well as Second Amendment rights. “He had a tendency to look at issues as right and wrong,” says Wills. “I think he felt more comfortable in a world where there was right and wrong.”

charlton heston ten commandments

But despite all the fiery speeches he gave on screen and off, this larger-than-life star, who died at age 84 in 2008, had a sense of humor, too. “I always get the superhero parts,” he said. “[But] you know, that chariot race was fixed.”

—Reporting by Katie Bruno