|Born||John Charles Carter, or Charlton John Carter
October 4, 1923
Wilmette, Illinois, U.S.
|Died||April 5, 2008
Beverly Hills, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Pneumonia|
|Resting place||Saint Matthew's Episcopal Church Columbarium
Pacific Palisades, California, U.S.
|Education||New Trier High School|
|Alma mater||Northwestern University|
|Home town||St. Helen, Michigan, U.S.|
|Political party||Democratic Party
Later Republican Party
|Spouse(s)||Lydia Clarke (1944–2008; his death)|
|Children||Fraser Clarke Heston (b. 1955)
Holly Anne Heston (b. 1961)
|Service/branch||U.S. Army Air Forces|
|Years of service||1944–1946|
|Unit||77th Bombardment Squadron|
|Battles/wars||World War II|
As a Hollywood star, he appeared in 100 films over the course of 60 years. He played Moses in the epic film, The Ten Commandments (1956), for which he received his first Golden Globe Award nomination. He also starred in Touch of Evil (1958) with Orson Welles, Ben-Hur (1959), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, El Cid (1961), and Planet of the Apes (1968). He also starred in the films The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Secret of the Incas (1954), and The Big Country (1958).
A supporter of Democratic politicians and civil rights in the 1960s, Heston later became a Republican, founding a conservative political action committee and supporting Ronald Reagan. Heston's most famous role in politics came as the five-term president of the National Rifle Association, from 1998 to 2003. After being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2003, he retired from both acting and the NRA presidency. Heston died on April 5, 2008, aged 84, from pneumonia.
Charlton Heston was born on October 4, 1923, to Lilla (née Charlton, authentically Baines; 1899–1994) and Russell Whitford Carter (1897–1966), a sawmill operator. Many sources indicate he was born in Evanston, Illinois. Heston's autobiography; however, and some other sources, place his birth in No Man's Land, Illinois, which usually refers to a then-unincorporated area now part of Wilmette, a wealthy Chicago suburb.
Heston said in a 1995 interview that he was not very good at remembering addresses or his early childhood. Heston was partially of Scottish descent, including from the Clan Fraser, but the majority of his ancestry was English. His earliest immigrant ancestors arrived in America from England in the 1600s. His maternal great-grandparents, William Charlton and Mary Drysdale Charlton, were English. They emigrated to Canada, where his grandmother, Marian Emily Charlton, was born in 1872.
In his autobiography, Heston refers to his father participating in his family's construction business. When Heston was an infant, his father's work moved the family to St. Helen, Michigan. It was a rural, heavily forested part of the state, and Heston lived an isolated yet idyllic existence, spending much time hunting and fishing in the backwoods of the area.
When Heston was 10 years old, his parents divorced. Shortly thereafter, his mother remarried and the new family moved back to Wilmette. Heston (his new surname) attended New Trier High School. He recalled living there:
All kids play pretend games, but I did it more than most. Even when we moved to Chicago, I was more or less a loner. We lived in a North Shore suburb, where I was a skinny hick from the woods, and all the other kids seemed to be rich and know about girls.:xii
Contradictions on paper and in an interview surround when "Charlton" became Heston's first name. The 1930 United States Census record for Richfield, Michigan, in Roscommon County, shows his name as being Charlton J. Carter at age six. Later accounts by sources and movie studio biographies say he was born John Charles Carter.
Interestingly, Charlton was his maternal grandmother Marian's maiden name, not his mother Lilla's. This is contrary to how 20th century references read and what Heston said. When Heston's maternal grandmother and his true maternal grandfather Charles Baines separated or divorced in the early 1900s, Marian (née Charlton) Baines married William Henry Lawton in 1907. Charlton Heston's mother Lilla and her sister May then decided to use their mother's maiden name of Charlton in place of Baines. After the Carters divorced in 1933 and Lilla Carter married Chester Heston, Charlton Carter became Charlton Heston . Thus, this was the name used for his first film. It was an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt (1941).
Heston frequently recounted that while growing up in northern Michigan in a sparsely populated area, he often wandered in the forest, "acting" out characters from books he had read. Later, in high school, he enrolled in New Trier's drama program, playing in the amateur silent 16 mm film adaptation of Peer Gynt, from the Ibsen play, by future film activist David Bradley released in 1941.
From the Winnetka Community Theatre (or the Winnetka Dramatist's Guild, as it was then known) in which he was active, he earned a drama scholarship to Northwestern University; among his acting teachers was Alvina Krause. Several years later, Heston teamed up with Bradley to produce the first sound version of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, in which Heston played Mark Antony.
World War II service
In 1944, Heston enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces. He served for two years as a radio operator and aerial gunner aboard a B-25 Mitchell medium bomber stationed in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands with the 77th Bombardment Squadron of the Eleventh Air Force. He reached the rank of staff sergeant.
Heston married Northwestern University student Lydia Marie Clarke, who was six months his senior. That same year, he joined the military. After his rise to fame, Heston narrated for highly classified military and Department of Energy instructional films, particularly relating to nuclear weapons, and "for six years Heston [held] the nation's highest security clearance" or Q clearance." The Q clearance is similar to a DoD or DIA clearance of top secret.
Theatre and television
After the war, Heston and Clarke lived in Hell's Kitchen, New York City, where they worked as artists' models. Seeking a way to make it in theatre, Heston and his wife Lydia decided to manage a playhouse in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1947, making $100 a week. In 1948, they returned to New York, where Heston was offered a supporting role in a Broadway revival of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, starring Katharine Cornell. In television, Heston played a number of roles in CBS's Studio One, one of the most popular anthology dramas of the 1950s.
Film producer Hal B. Wallis of Casablanca spotted Heston in a 1950 television production of Wuthering Heights and offered him a contract. When his wife reminded Heston they had decided to pursue theater and television, he replied, "Well, maybe just for one film to see what it's like."
Heston turned down the lead opposite Marilyn Monroe in Let's Make Love to appear in Benn W. Levy's play The Tumbler, directed by Laurence Olivier. Called a "harrowingly pretentious verse drama" by Time, the production went through a troubled out-of-town tryout period in Boston and closed after five performances on Broadway in February 1960. Heston, a great admirer of Olivier the actor, took on the play to work with him as a director. After the play flopped, Heston told columnist Joe Hyams, "I feel I am the only one who came out with a profit.... I got out of it precisely what I went in for – a chance to work with Olivier. I learned from him in six weeks things I never would have learned otherwise. I think I've ended up a better actor."
Heston enjoyed acting on stage, believing it revivified him as an actor. He never returned to Broadway, but acted in regional theatres. His most frequent stage roles included the title role in Macbeth, and Mark Antony in both Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. He played Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons in several regional productions in the 1970s and 1980s, eventually playing it in London's West End. The play was a success and the West End production was taken to Aberdeen, Scotland, for a week, where it was staged at His Majesty's Theatre.
Heston's first professional movie appearance was the leading role in Dark City, a 1950 film noir. His breakthrough came when Cecil B. DeMille cast him as a circus manager in The Greatest Show on Earth, which was named by the Motion Picture Academy as the best picture of 1952. In 1953, Heston was Billy Wilder's first choice to play Sefton in Stalag 17. However, the role was given to William Holden, who won an Oscar for it. In 1954, he played the lead in Secret of the Incas, which was shot on location at the archeological site Machu Picchu and had numerous similarities to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Filmed a quarter-century before the latter film, "Incas" included a tomb scene with the revelatory shaft of light pointing out a clue on a map and featured Heston's roguish antiquities thief's costume and light beard; Raiders' costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis noted that it was "almost a shot for shot similar" to the film on which she worked. Heston became an icon for playing Moses in the hugely successful film The Ten Commandments (1956), selected by director Cecil B. DeMille, who reportedly thought Heston bore an uncanny resemblance to Michelangelo's statue of Moses.
In 1955, Heston appeared with Jane Wyman in Lucy Gallant. In 1958, he portrayed a Mexican police officer, Ramon Miguel Vargas, in Orson Welles's widely acclaimed film noir Touch of Evil. He also played a rare supporting role in William Wyler's The Big Country opposite Gregory Peck and Burl Ives.
After Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, and Rock Hudson turned down the title role in Ben-Hur (1959), Heston accepted the role, winning the Academy Award for Best Actor, one of the unprecedented 11 Oscars the film earned. After Moses and Ben-Hur, Heston became more identified with Biblical epics than any other actor. He voiced Ben-Hur in an animated television production of the Lew Wallace novel in 2003.
Heston played leading roles in a number of fictional and historical epics: El Cid (1961), 55 Days at Peking (1963), as Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), and Khartoum (1966). Heston also played the title role in the Western movie Will Penny (1968).
From 1965–71, Heston served as president of the Screen Actors Guild. The Guild had been created in 1933 for the benefit of actors, who had different interests from the producers and directors who controlled the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. He was more conservative than most actors, and publicly clashed with outspoken liberal actors such as Ed Asner.
In 1968, Heston starred in Planet of the Apes and in 1970, he had a smaller supporting role in the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. In 1970, he portrayed Mark Antony again in another film version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. His co-stars included Jason Robards as Brutus, Richard Chamberlain as Octavius, Robert Vaughn as Casca, and English actors Richard Johnson as Cassius, John Gielgud as Caesar, and Diana Rigg as Portia.
In 1971, he starred in the postapocalpytic science-fiction film The Omega Man, which has received mixed critical reviews. In 1972, Heston made his directorial debut and starred as Mark Antony in an adaptation of the William Shakespeare play he had performed earlier in his theater career, Antony and Cleopatra. Hildegarde Neil was Cleopatra and English actor Eric Porter was Ahenobarbus. After receiving scathing reviews, the film was never released to theaters, and is rarely seen on television. It was finally released on DVD in March 2011. He subsequently starred in more successful films such as Soylent Green (1973) and Earthquake (1974).
Beginning with playing Cardinal Richelieu in 1973's The Three Musketeers, Heston was seen in an increasing number of supporting roles, cameos, and live theater. From 1985-87, he starred in his only prime-time stint on a television series in the soap, The Colbys. With his son Fraser, he produced and starred in several TV movies, including remakes of Treasure Island and A Man For All Seasons. In 1992, Heston appeared on the A&E cable network in a short series of videos, Charlton Heston Presents the Bible, reading passages from the King James version.
Never taking himself too seriously, he also made a few appearances as "Chuck" in Dame Edna Everage's shows, both on stage and on television. Heston appeared in 1993 in a cameo role in Wayne's World 2, in a scene where Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) requests casting a better actor for a small role. After the scene is reshot with Heston, Campbell weeps in awe. That same year, Heston hosted Saturday Night Live. He had cameos in the films Hamlet, Tombstone, and True Lies.
He starred in many theatre productions at the Los Angeles Music Center, where he appeared in Detective Story and The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, and as Sherlock Holmes in The Crucifer of Blood, opposite Richard Johnson as Dr. Watson. In 2001, he made a cameo appearance as an elderly, dying chimpanzee in Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes. His last film role was as Josef Mengele in My Father, Rua Alguem 5555, which had limited release (mainly to festivals) in 2003.
Heston's distinctive voice landed him roles as a film narrator, including Armageddon and Disney's Hercules. He played the title role in Mister Roberts three times and cited it as one of his favorite roles. In the early 1990s, he tried unsuccessfully to revive and direct the show with Tom Selleck in the title role. In 1998, Heston had a cameo role playing himself in the American television series Friends, in the episode "The One with Joey's Dirty Day".
Heston's political activism had four stages. In the first stage, 1955–61, he endorsed Democratic candidates for President, and signed on to petitions and liberal political causes. From 1961-72, the second stage, he continued to endorse Democratic candidates for President. Moving beyond Hollywood, he became nationally visible in 1963 in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. From 1965-71, he served as the elected president of the Screen Actors Guild, and clashed with his liberal rival Ed Asner. In 1968, he used his "cowboy" persona to publicize gun control measures.
The third stage began in 1972. Like many neoconservatives of the same era who moved from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican, he rejected the liberalism of George McGovern and supported Richard Nixon in 1972 for President. In the 1980s, he gave strong support to Ronald Reagan during his conservative presidency. In 1995, Heston entered his fourth stage by establishing his own political action fund-raising committee, and jumped into the internal politics of the National Rifle Association. He gave numerous culture wars speeches and interviews upholding the conservative position, blaming media and academia for imposing affirmative action, which he saw as unfair reverse discrimination.
Heston campaigned for Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1956, although he was unable to campaign for John F. Kennedy in 1960 due to filming on El Cid in Spain. Reportedly, when in 1961 a segregated Oklahoma movie theater was showing his movie El Cid for the first time, he joined a picket line outside. Heston made no reference to this in his autobiography, but describes traveling to Oklahoma City to picket segregated restaurants, to the chagrin of the producers of El Cid, Allied Artists. During the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom held in Washington, DC, in 1963, he accompanied Martin Luther King, Jr. In later speeches, he said he helped the civil rights cause "long before Hollywood found it fashionable."
In the 1964 election, he endorsed Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had masterminded the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress over the vociferous opposition of Southern Democrats. That year, Heston publicly opposed California Proposition 14 that rolled back the state's fair housing law, the Rumford Fair Housing Act.
In his 1995 autobiography, In the Arena, written after he became a conservative Republican, Heston wrote that while driving back from the set of The War Lord, he saw a "Barry Goldwater for President" billboard with his campaign slogan "In Your Heart You Know He's Right" and thought to himself, "Son of a bitch, he is right." Heston later said that his support for Goldwater was the event that helped turn him against gun control laws. However, following the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, Heston, Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, and James Stewart issued a statement in support of President Johnson's Gun Control Act of 1968. The Johnson White House had solicited Heston's support. He endorsed Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 Presidential election.
Heston opposed the Vietnam War during its course (though he changed his opinion in the years following the war) and in 1969 was approached by the Democratic Party to run for the U.S. Senate against incumbent George Murphy. He agonized over the decision but ultimately determined he could never give up acting. He is reported to have voted for Richard Nixon in 1972, though Nixon is not mentioned in his autobiography.
By the 1980s, Heston supported gun rights and changed his political affiliation from Democratic to Republican. When asked why he changed political alliances, Heston replied "I didn't change. The Democratic Party changed." In 1987, he first registered as a Republican. He campaigned for Republicans and Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.
At a Time Warner stockholders' meeting, Heston castigated the company for releasing an Ice-T album which included a song "Cop Killer" about killing police officers. While filming The Savage, Heston was initiated by blood into the Miniconjou Lakota Nation, saying that he had no natural American Indian heritage, but elected to be "Native American" to salvage the term from exclusively referring to American Indians.
In 1993, Heston teamed up with John Anthony West and Robert M. Schoch in an Emmy Award-winning NBC special, The Mystery of the Sphinx. West and Schoch had proposed a much earlier date for the construction of the Great Sphinx than generally accepted. They had suggested that the main type of weathering evident on the Great Sphinx and surrounding enclosure walls could only have been caused by prolonged and extensive rainfall and that the whole structure was carved out of limestone bedrock by an ancient advanced culture (such as the Heavy Neolithic Qaraoun culture).
In a 1997 speech called "Fighting the Culture War in America", Heston rhetorically deplored a culture war he said was being conducted by a generation of media people, educators, entertainers, and politicians against:
... the God fearing, law-abiding, Caucasian, middle-class Protestant – or even worse, evangelical Christian, Midwestern or Southern – or even worse, rural, apparently straight – or even worse, admitted heterosexuals, gun owning – or even worse, NRA-card-carrying, average working stiff – or even worse, male working stiff – because, not only don’t you count, you are a down-right obstacle to social progress. Your voice deserves a lower decibel level, your opinion is less enlightened, your media access is insignificant; and frankly, mister, you need to wake up, wise up, and learn a little something from your new America; and until you do, would you mind shutting up?
He went on to say:
The Constitution was handed down to guide us by a bunch of wise old dead white guys who invented our country! Now some flinch when I say that. Why! It's true-they were white guys! So were most of the guys that died in Lincoln's name opposing slavery in the 1860s. So why should I be ashamed of white guys? Why is "Hispanic Pride" or "Black Pride" a good thing, while "White Pride" conjures shaven heads and white hoods? Why was the Million Man March on Washington celebrated by many as progress, while the Promise Keepers March on Washington was greeted with suspicion and ridicule? I'll tell you why: Cultural warfare!
In an address to students at Harvard Law School entitled "Winning the Cultural War", Heston said, "If Americans believed in political correctness, we'd still be King George's boys – subjects bound to the British crown."
He said to the students:
You are the best and the brightest. You, here in this fertile cradle of American academia, here in the castle of learning on the Charles River. You are the cream. But I submit that you and your counterparts across the land are the most socially conformed and politically silenced generation since Concord Bridge. And as long as you validate that and abide it, you are, by your grandfathers' standards, cowards.
During a speech at Brandeis University, he stated, "Political correctness is tyranny with manners". In a speech to the National Press Club in 1997, Heston said, "Now, I doubt any of you would prefer a rolled up newspaper as a weapon against a dictator or a criminal intruder."
Heston was the president (a largely ceremonial position) and spokesman of the NRA from 1998 until he resigned in 2003. At the 2000 NRA convention, he raised a rifle over his head and declared that a potential Al Gore administration would take away his Second Amendment rights "from my cold, dead hands". In announcing his resignation in 2003, he again raised a rifle over his head, repeating the five famous words of his 2000 speech. Heston became an honorary life member.
In the 2002 film Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore interviewed Heston at Heston's home, asking him about an April 1999 meeting the NRA held in Denver, Colorado, shortly after the Columbine high school massacre. Moore criticized Heston for the perceived thoughtlessness in the timing and location of the meeting. When Moore asked Heston for his thoughts on why gun-related homicide is so much higher in the United States than in other countries, Heston said it was because, "we have probably more mixed ethnicity" and/or that "we have a history of violence, perhaps more than most countries." Heston subsequently, on-camera, excused himself and walked away. Moore was later criticized for having conducted the interview in what some viewed as an ambush. The interview was conducted early in 2001, before Heston publicly announced his Alzheimer's diagnosis, but the film was released afterward, causing some to say that Moore should have cut the interview from the final film.
Heston opposed abortion and introduced Bernard Nathanson's 1987 pro-life documentary, Eclipse of Reason, which focuses on late-term abortions. Heston served on the advisory board of Accuracy in Media, a conservative media watchdog group founded by Reed Irvine.
Illness and death
In 1996, Heston had a hip replacement. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1998. Following a course of radiation treatment, the cancer went into remission. In 2000, he publicly disclosed that he had been treated for alcoholism at a Utah clinic in May–June of that year.
On August 9, 2002, he publicly announced (via a taped message) that he had been diagnosed with symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease. In July 2003, in his final public appearance, Heston received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House from President George W. Bush. In March 2005, various newspapers reported that family and friends were shocked by the progression of his illness, and that he was sometimes unable to get out of bed.
Heston died on the morning of April 5, 2008, at his home in Beverly Hills, California, with Lydia, his wife of 64 years, by his side. He was also survived by their son, Fraser Clarke Heston, and adopted daughter, Holly Ann Heston. The cause of death was not disclosed by the family. A month later, media outlets reported his death was due to pneumonia. Heston's family released a statement:
Charlton Heston was seen by the world as larger than life. He was known for his chiselled jaw, broad shoulders and resonating voice, and, of course, for the roles he played. 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.— Family of Charlton Heston
Early tributes came in from leading figures; President George W. Bush called Heston "a man of character and integrity, with a big heart ... He served his country during World War II, marched in the civil rights movement, led a labor union and vigorously defended Americans’ Second Amendment rights." Former First Lady Nancy Reagan said that she was "heartbroken" over Heston's death and released a statement, reading, "I will never forget Chuck as a hero on the big screen in the roles he played, but more importantly I considered him a hero in life for the many times that he stepped up to support Ronnie in whatever he was doing."
Heston's funeral was held a week later on April 12, 2008, in a ceremony which was attended by 250 people including Nancy Reagan and Hollywood stars such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olivia de Havilland, Keith Carradine, Pat Boone, Tom Selleck, Oliver Stone (who had cast Heston in his 1999 movie Any Given Sunday), Rob Reiner, and Christian Bale.
The funeral was held at Episcopal Parish of St. Matthew's Church in Pacific Palisades, the church where Heston regularly worshipped and attended Sunday services since the early 1980s. He was cremated and his ashes were given to his family.
Richard Corliss wrote in Time magazine, "From start to finish, Heston was a grand, ornery anachronism, the sinewy symbol of a time when Hollywood took itself seriously, when heroes came from history books, not comic books. Epics like Ben-Hur or El Cid simply couldn't be made today, in part because popular culture has changed as much as political fashion. But mainly because there's no one remotely like Charlton Heston to infuse the form with his stature, fire and guts."
Heston's cinematic legacy was the subject of Cinematic Atlas: The Triumphs of Charlton Heston, an 11-film retrospective by the Film Society of the Lincoln Center that was shown at the Walter Reade Theatre from August 29 to September 4, 2008.
On April 17, 2010, Heston was inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum's Hall of Great Western Performers.
In his childhood hometown of St. Helen, Michigan, a charter school, Charlton Heston Academy, opened on September 4, 2012. It is housed in the former St. Helen Elementary School. Enrollment on the first day was 220 students in grades kindergarten through eighth.
Charlton Heston was inducted as a Laureate of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois and awarded the Order of Lincoln (the State’s highest honor) by the Governor of Illinois in 1977 in the area of Performing Arts.
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- Raymond. From My Cold, Dead Hands: Charlton Heston and American Politics. p. 1.
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- Raymond, p. 276.
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- s:Fighting the Culture War in America[dead link]
- Heston, Charlton. Winning the Cultural War, americanrhetoric.com, February 16, 1999.
- "Heston Champions Second Amendment". CBS News. March 29, 2000.
- Gold, Dudley Susan. Open For Debate: Gun Control. Benchmark Books. January 2004.
- Raymond, From My Cold, Dead Hands, pp 5–7, 241, 257.
- Variety, "Gore fires back after Heston tirade", June 13, 2000.
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- Ebert, Roger (June 18, 2004). "'9/11': Just the facts?". Chicago Sun-Times. p. 55. "In some cases, [Moore] was guilty of making a good story better, but in other cases (such as his ambush of Charlton Heston) he was unfair..."
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- Charlton Heston on the Lincoln Academy site, 1977
|This section lacks ISBNs for the books listed in it. (April 2015)|
- Bernier, Michelle Bernier. Charlton Heston: An Incredible Life (2nd ed. 2009) excerpt and text search
- Raymond, Emilie. From My Cold, Dead Hands: Charlton Heston and American Politics (2006) excerpt and text search; biography by scholar focused on political roles
- Ross, Steven J. Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics (2011) ch 7 on Heston
- Rovin, Jeff. The Films of Charlton Heston (1980)
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Charlton Heston.|
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Charlton Heston|
|Wikisource has original works written by or about:
- Charlton Heston at the Internet Broadway Database
- Charlton Heston at the Internet Movie Database
- Charlton Heston at Find a Grave
- Reel Classics
- BBC News Obituary
- 'From Our Files: An Interview with Charlton Heston' by Phil Elderkin, The Christian Science Monitor, November 4, 1959.
- Charlton Heston papers, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
|Non-profit organization positions|
Marion P. Hammer
|President of the National Rifle Association