Some called his style buffoonish, but he spoke like an ordinary Venezuelan -- not like a bureaucrat -- and voters reacted positively.
Other leftist leaders elected after him, like Bolivia's Evo Morales, Ecuador's Rafael Correa and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, followed Chavez's example to varying extents.
Chavez could also be secretive. He was slow to publicly admit that he had cancer, and never shared what type of cancer affected him. The government kept a tight seal on details of the president's treatment and declining health.
The death of the Venezuelan president leaves a sharply polarized country, with no clear successor for his party and an untested opposition. Chavez' passing means new elections will be held, although he had said previously he wanted Maduro to succeed him.
Chavez was born in the plains state of Barinas, in southwest Venezuela, on July 28, 1954, the third of the seven children of two educators.
As a child, he was an altar boy who went on to develop a great love of baseball. Recently, even as questions arose about his health, the media-savvy Chavez sought to reassure the public by playing catch with his foreign minister on state television.
Chavez became more authoritarian over the years
As a young man, he enrolled in the Military Academy of Venezuela, reaching the rank of sub-lieutenant in 1975. He joined the parachute corps of the army and rose through the ranks to become a lieutenant colonel.
His first political steps came when he founded the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement, or MBR-200, in 1982. A decade later, on February 4, 1992, he led a failed military rebellion against then-President Carlos Andres Perez. He also made his first public appearance in front of the television cameras.
"Compatriots, sadly for now the objectives that we proposed were not achieved in the capital city," he said. "That is to say, we here in Caracas did not succeed in gaining power. You did it very well out there, but now is time to avoid more bloodshed. Now is time to reflect and new situations will come."
Chavez served two years in prison before then-President Rafael Caldera granted him amnesty.
Chavez went on to form a new political party, the Fifth Republic Movement, which carried him to a presidential election victory in 1998. His fiery campaign speeches blamed the traditional parties for corruption and poverty.
Chavez married twice and divorced twice. He had three children with his first wife, Nancy Colmenarez: Rosa Virginia, Maria Gabriela and Hugo Rafael.
Years later, he married Marisabel Rodriguez, with whom he had a fourth daughter, Rosa Ines. He divorced in 2003; Venezuela has had no first lady since then.
Upon taking office, Chavez made rewriting the constitution one of his first orders of business. A July 2000 referendum affirmed the new constitution, which the government printed as a little blue book that Chavez used regularly as a prop during speeches.
In the following years, the charismatic Chavez rattled off a string of electoral victories that made him seem almost invincible.
He won re-election in 2000, survived a recall election in 2004, and won another six-year term in 2006.
Chavez secured another re-election victory in October, describing his win as "a perfect battle, and totally democratic." He vowed to "be a better president every day."
A turning point for Chavez came in April 2002, when a coup briefly removed him from office.
But the interim government couldn't consolidate power, and within 48 hours, with the help of the military, Chavez returned to power.
While short-lived, the coup had a profound effect on Chavez, who took a more accelerated authoritarian and leftist turn afterward.
Human Rights Watch wrote in 2010 that the coup provided a pretext for policies that undercut human rights.
"Discrimination on political grounds has been a defining feature of the Chavez presidency," the report concluded.
"At times, the president himself has openly endorsed acts of discrimination. More generally, he has encouraged his subordinates to engage in discrimination by routinely denouncing his critics as anti-democratic conspirators and coup-mongers -- regardless of whether or not they had any connection to the 2002 coup," the report said.
He clamped down on broadcasters, other media