Heston, who died Saturday night at 84, was a towering figure both in his politics and on screen, where his characters had the ear of God (Moses in "The Ten Commandments"), survived apocalyptic plagues ("The Omega Man") and endured one of Hollywood's most-grueling action sequences (the chariot race in "Ben-Hur," which earned him the best-actor Academy Award).
Better known in recent years as a fierce gun-rights advocate who headed the National Rifle Association, Heston played legendary leaders and ordinary men hurled into heroic struggles.
"In taking on epic and commanding roles, he showed himself to be one of our nation's most gifted actors, and his legacy will forever be a part of our cinema," Republican presidential candidate McCain said in a statement that also noted Heston's involvement in the civil-rights movement and his stand against gun control.
Decades before his NRA leadership, Heston was a strong advocate for civil rights in the 1960s, joining marches and offering financial assistance.
Civil-rights leaders in Los Angeles held a moment of silence in Heston's memory Sunday after an unrelated news conference.
Heston had contributed and raised thousands of dollars in Hollywood for Martin Luther King Jr.'s movement, said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Round Table.
"We certainly disagree with his position as NRA head and also his firm, firm, unwavering support of the unlimited right to bear arms," Hutchinson said. But, he added, "Charlton Heston was a complex individual. He lived a long time, and certainly, there were many phases. The phases we prefer to remember were certainly his contributions to Dr. King and civil rights."
He supported civil rights when it was unpopular. He supported free speech when it was unpopular (see his speech at Harvard). He supported gun rights (another civil right) knowing it would and did cost him many jobs and a ton of money.
He was a man of principle.
There are few with his courage these days.