In 2002, the day after Charlton Heston revealed that he likely had Alzheimer's disease, he was in high spirits, flying from Los Angeles to Utah with his close friend Tony Makris. "He looked at me and said, 'Why so glum, pal—you feel bad for me?'" Makris recalls. "I said, 'Yes,' and he said, 'Don't. I got to be Charlton Heston for almost 80 years. That's more than fair.'"

On April 5, at age 84, Heston passed away from Alzheimer's-related complications. The actor, whose resounding voice and Olympian presence made him the archetypal screen-epic star, died peacefully at his Beverly Hills home. By Heston's bedside were Lydia, 85, his wife of 64 years; their son Fraser, 53, a producer-director; and daughter Holly, 46, an events planner. "They knew it was coming," Makris says. "It was as nice as can be expected. A good Scottish send-off."

And a quiet end to an often turbulent life. In his five-decade film career, the 6'3" Heston portrayed the likes of Ben-Hur, Moses and Taylor, the angry hero of Planet of the Apes. But he became almost as well known for his outspoken politics, chiefly as president of the National Rifle Association from 1998 to 2003—he proclaimed that if gun control advocates wished to take away his firearms, they'd have to pry them "from my cold, dead hands." Like his friend Ronald Reagan, Heston was a onetime liberal—he'd marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and backed both John and Robert Kennedy—who later made a sharp right turn.

Though he was a sometime firebrand in public, colleagues remember "Chuck" as unfailingly gracious. "The sweetest man in the world, kind and thoughtful to all the cast and crew," says actor Robert Vaughn, an extra in 1956's The Ten Commandments, in which Heston famously parted the Red Sea. While filming a shower scene for the 1973 sci-fi film Soylent Green, "the shower was coming down in a stream that wasn't right for the photography," recalls costar Leigh Taylor-Young. "I said, 'Maybe you could part the shower.' He gave me a gentle giant smile."

It's hard to believe the larger-than-life Heston was ever "a nerd, before the word had even been invented," as he described himself in his 1995 autobiography. Raised in Michigan and Illinois, he won an acting scholarship in 1941 to Northwestern University, where he met Lydia. How did their marriage last? As Heston told PEOPLE in 1998, "Remember ... three little words: 'I was wrong.'"

After World War II service in the Aleutian Islands, Heston went to New York City, won a key part on Broadway in Antony and Cleopatra and set off for Hollywood, where he got his blockbuster break. Driving off the Paramount lot, he gave filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille a jaunty wave. "I liked the way he waved," DeMille told an aide. "We'd better have him in."

That led to Heston's breakout role in DeMille's Oscar-winning The Greatest Show on Earth, starting his run as the epic king; he won the Best Actor Oscar for 1959's Ben-Hur. Heston, who acted well into his 70s, also donned modern dress, including in Orson Welles' noir thriller Touch of Evil and his TV stint as a family patriarch in the Dynasty spinoff The Colbys. "He'd have everyone over for barbecues," recalls John James, who played his son. "He went out of his way to put people at ease."

For the antigun documentary Bowling for Columbine, Heston was interviewed by Michael Moore. The director's confrontational approach unsettled the actor, and ultimately Heston terminated the interview, politely rose and left the room. "That," says his Three Musketeers costar Richard Chamberlain, "was heartbreaking."

In August 2002 Heston released a video statement, announcing that he had "symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease." Pals say his decline was inexorable. "He just went slowly away," Makris says of Heston, who will be buried April 12 in a small, private service. To many, though, he will always live on through his epic movies. "What a legacy he has left us," says James. "His films are timeless. What a wonderful life."

  • Contributors:
  • Champ Clark/Los Angeles,
  • Howard Breuer/Los Angeles,
  • Natasha Stoynoff/New York City.