Oscar-winning US actor Charlton Heston, whose chiselled features and commanding presence won him epic roles from Moses to Michelangelo and became the face of American gun rights, died on Saturday night aged 84.

The actor died at his home in Beverly Hills, California, with wife Lydia at his side, the family said in a statement. Heston, who won the 1959 best actor Oscar for the title role in "Ben Hur" in which he did many of his own chariot race stunts, had announced in 2002 that he was suffering symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

"Charlton Heston was seen by the world as larger than life," the family said. "No one could ask for a fuller life than his. No man could have given more to his family, to his profession and to his country. In his own words, 'I have lived such a wonderful life! I've lived enough for two people'."

The family said a private memorial service would be held.

Charlton Heston's most controversial role came not in a movie but as president of the National Rifle Association, the gun-rights lobby group, from 1998 to 2003.

He often stood on the podium at conventions, holding an antique flintlock rifle above his head and telling gun-control advocates they would not get his gun unless they could pry it "from my cold, dead hands".

"He believed the sanctity of American freedom was defined by the Bill of Rights and the Bill of Rights was what made the United States different from every country in the world," Wayne LaPierre, executive vice-president of the NRA, told CNN.

In his acting heyday, Charlton Heston's rugged features and conservative lifestyle seemed to belong to another age. As director Anthony Mann said: "Put a toga on him and he looks perfect". Frank Sinatra once joked: "That guy Heston has to watch it. If he's not careful, he'll get actors a good name".

Between super-spectacles (The 10 Commandments, Ben Hur), science fiction movies (Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green) and disaster epics (Earthquake), the legendary actor pushed for screen versions of Shakespearean plays, directing one, Anthony and Cleopatra.

"They don't make them like that anymore," Steven Gaydos, executive editor of Variety Magazine, told BBC television after his death. "People in Hollywood, even if they didn't agree with his politics, respected the guy."

Born John Charlton Carter (Heston was his stepfather's name) on October 4, 1923, in Evanston, Illinois, he made his theatrical debut as Santa Claus in a school play at age five.

After a World War II stint as a gunner in the Army Air Corps he headed to Broadway, where he briefly supported himself with nude modelling between acting jobs. In 1944 he married fellow Northwestern University drama student Lydia Clarke and their marriage lasted 64 years until his death. They had two children, Fraser Clarke and Holly Ann, and three grandchildren.

After some stage and television roles, Cecil B. DeMille put him in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), portraying a circus manager determined that the show must go on.

In 1956 Mr DeMille cast Charlton Heston as Moses in The 10 Commandments, saying the actor reminded him of Michelangelo's statue. The $7.5 million epic was the most expensive film up to that time and became the second-biggest moneymaker of the time, behind Gone With the Wind.

In addition to playing Moses, the actor did the voice of God in the film. His three-month-old son, Fraser, played the baby Moses floating down the Nile in a basket.

He also took roles in Westerns, with a break in 1957 for Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, followed by more epics.

Less successful were his portrayal of John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told about the life of Jesus and that of Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy, a 1965 commercial flop.

Charlton Heston was a besieged astronaut in 1968's The Planet of the Apes but ensured his character was killed in 1970's Beneath the Planet of the Apes so he would not be sought for further sequels.

The Ape pictures were followed by science fiction hits such as The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973). He also was a leading figure in disaster epics, among them Skyjacked (1972) and Airport 1975 (1974).

In 1985 he played patriarch Jason Colby in the TV soap opera Dynasty II: The Colbys of California.

In the 1960s Charlton Heston worked in the civil rights movement and he was a six-term president of the Screen Actors Guild. He once campaigned for Democrats - Adlai Stevenson against Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy against Richard Nixon. But he switched to Republican Nixon in 1972 and backed old friend Ronald Reagan in the former actor's quest for the presidency. Thereafter, he was identified with conservative politics and causes.

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2003.


Charlton Heston and Malta

Maltese film critic Mario Azzopardi met Charlton Heston early in June 1995 in the Phoenicia Hotel when he stopped in Malta on a cruise. The actor was very favourably impressed by the Grand Harbour. At the time he was doing the final editing of his autobiography In the Arena before publication.

It was not Charlton Heston's first connection with Malta or the Maltese. In 1958 he had worked on the film Touch of Evil with Maltese actor Joseph Calleja. He told Mr Azzopardi that he had been impressed not only with Mr Calleja's skill but also his dedication to the film industry, when director Orson Welles sent the US actor to wake Mr Calleja up at 2 a.m. for a particular scene. Although unprepared, Mr Calleja had shown his worth and the scene had been filmed in just two takes. The episode is also mentioned in In the Arena.

At that meeting in 1995 Charlton Heston told Mr Azzopardi that it was well-nigh impossible for Hollywood to produce new Roman epics such as The Ten Commandments. Fortunately, Mr Azzopardi told The Times, the actor had been proven wrong at least once, with the production in Malta of Gladiator.

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