Many people assume Charlton Heston was as imposing in life as he was in his movies. And the handsome, 6-foot-3 star could be. His son, Fraser Heston, exclusively recalls to Closer Weekly, on newsstands now, that as a child, he thought his dad was a professional charioteer.

“In Rome, when making Ben-Hur, he’d come home in costume and bring me a big sack of sand from the arena [where they filmed the famed chariot race] and say, ‘Son, this is not just any sand. This is MGM sand!’”

A boy might naturally be awed by his father, but at home, The Ten Commandments star was warm and approachable, a devoted family man who was married to his wife, Lydia, for 64 years. Unlike many celebrities, he managed to balance family, career and activism, including championing civil rights and other causes that required courage and conviction. “A lot of people look at him as this sort of overly conservative, rigid, Old Testament guy,” says Fraser. “Despite his political leanings, he wasn’t that sort of person at all. He was a very loving, engaging, funny guy.”

His family saw Charlton’s softer side as its own kind of heroism. “He was very patient as a dad,” Fraser recalls. Adds his daughter, Holly Heston: “He believed in quality time, so when he was with you, he was completely with you.” Both kids knew he was besotted with their mother. “They were college sweethearts,” says Fraser. “Right through World War II,” when Charlton served as an aerial gunner, “there was only one woman Dad ever loved, and that was Mom.” Toward the end of his life, Charlton said of Lydia, “I couldn’t be me without her.”

He also couldn’t be himself if he didn’t stand by his convictions. “He marched on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with Dr. [Martin Luther] King,” Fraser shares. “There was a lot at stake then, and it was an important thing to take a stand when it was not popular to do so.”

Charlton Heston's Kids
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Being unpopular didn’t worry Charlton, even when his support of the National Endowment for the Arts put him at odds with his friend President Ronald Reagan, and becoming a five-time president of the NRA drew ire from gun-control advocates. “I wish for you the courage to be unpopular,” he once said. “Courage is history’s true currency.”

The actor never lacked courage — or heart. “He did three tours in Vietnam to visit frontline troops and then called all their parents and wives and girlfriends when he got home,” Fraser marvels. “You would think serving in World War II would give you a get-out-of-public-service-free card, but he never saw it that way.” Instead, the movie star who once said, “Celebrity is a corrosive condition for the soul,” devoted himself to helping others.

He showed courage to the end. When he was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease before passing away at 84 in 2008, “he faced his illness with such dignity and grace,” Holly tells Closer. “There were no empty buckets on his bucket list. He really felt he had so much richness in his life.”

— Reporting by Lisa Chambers

For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.