Charlton Heston, veteran Oscar-winning actor and president of the National Rifle Assn., announced Friday that he has symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer's disease. The announcement was made at a news conference at the Beverly Hills Hotel via a taped statement from Heston.
Looking strong and determined, the 77-year-old Heston, who played such heroic figures as Moses and Ben-Hur during his five-decade film career, said that despite the announcement, he's "neither giving up nor giving in. For an actor, there is no greater loss than the loss of his audience. I can part the Red Sea," he stated, referring to his role as Moses in the 1956 classic "The Ten Commandments," "but I can't part with you."
Heston had prerecorded the statement Wednesday. His spokesperson, Lisa Powers, said Heston wanted to do it by videotape because of the nature of the announcement. "It is very emotional and personal," Powers said. "He wanted to deliver the statement appropriately and in its entirety."
Heston said he made the announcement now, "because when the time comes, I might not be able to." He added that he would continue as president of the NRA--his fourth term will be up in April--and plans to maintain his political speaking schedule and campaign stumping for Republican candidates this fall.
But Heston clearly took the occasion to signal a farewell of sorts. He concluded by quoting William Shakespeare, who wrote his own farewell through the words of Prospero in "The Tempest":
Be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air.
His statement also acknowledged the support of his longtime wife, Lydia; their children, Fraser and Holly; and their three grandchildren.
"I spoke with him this morning, and I think he's a little relieved that he has told his fans, the media, friends and family," Powers said. The development regarding his health "has happened within the last couple of weeks," she added. "He has been talking to his physicians, and they kind of came to the decision to let the public know. Mr. Heston would like to work as long as he can."
Throughout his career, Heston has been as well known for his political activism as for his acting. Having been involved with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s civil rights movement, he has taken on a more conservative bent on other issues in recent years.
At a Time-Warner stockholder's meeting in 1992, he took on the media company for releasing a song by rapper Ice T titled "Cop Killer."
A longtime member of the NRA, he was elected to its presidency in 1998 and was awarded an honorary life membership in 1990--only the 16th ever given. He is widely credited with increasing the NRA's membership rolls from 2.8 million at the time of his election to its current 4 million.
Heston's involvement with the NRA is part of a long legacy of civic activism, said Wayne La Pierre, the NRA's executive vice president.
"He's not some flash-in-the-pan Hollywood figure with some pop-culture political view that vanishes tomorrow morning," he said. "He's the real deal."
Heston's announcement was reminiscent of a 1994 statement released by his friend and political bedfellow Ronald Reagan, whose "sunset of my life" letter told the American public that he had been found to have Alzheimer's.
Sarah Brady, chair of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, released a statement Friday acknowledging her group's ideological differences with Heston and the NRA but offering solidarity with his family.
"We understand how painful Alzheimer's disease can be for those suffering from it and for their loved ones. Our thoughts are with Mr. Heston and his family during this difficult time."
Heston made his film debut in the 1950 film noir "Dark City" and hit his stride two years later in an Oscar-winning best picture, "The Greatest Show on Earth." That film marked his first collaboration with director Cecil B. DeMille. The two paired up four years later for the blockbuster religious epic "The Ten Commandments." In 1959, he received his one and only Academy Award, for best actor, in the epic "Ben-Hur," directed by William Wyler.
Heston continued to star in period epics during the 1960s, most especially as the tragic hero in 1961's "El Cid," John the Baptist in 1965's "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and artist Michelangelo in 1965's "The Agony and the Ecstasy." Perhaps his best-loved film is the 1967 sci-fi epic "Planet of the Apes." Last year, he had a cameo part in Tim Burton's remake.
Heston has always been quick to spoof his stolid image, twice as guest host on "Saturday Night Live" and in such movies as "Wayne's World 2" (1993) and the Disney's "Hercules" (1997).
Times staff writer Anthony McCartney contributed to this article.