Sterling Hayden

Active - 1941 - 2000  |   Born - Mar 26, 1916 in Montclair, New Jersey, United States  |   Died - May 23, 1986   |   Genres - Drama, Western, Crime, Action, Adventure

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Biography by Jason Ankeny

The archetypal B-movie actor, Sterling Hayden was never the superstar many projected him to be; a handsome, gritty performer, at first glance he enjoyed an erratic career, yet on closer inspection his lengthy list of credits contains a number of classic films made with many of the most celebrated filmmakers in cinema history. Born March 26, 1916, in Montclair, NJ, he quit school at the age of 16 to become a mate on a schooner, beginning a lifelong love affair with the sea; indeed, it was often suggested that he was never particularly enamored of the acting life, instead preferring to sail. By age 22, Hayden was a ship's captain, but a desire to buy his own boat prompted him to begin modeling, and in 1940 he landed a movie contract at Paramount. With no previous acting experience, he starred in 1941's Virginia, followed a year later by Bahama Passage. The pictures' successes made him a star, and he also grabbed headlines by marrying actress Madeleine Carroll.

Paramount began trumpeting Hayden as both "the Most Beautiful Man in the Movies" and "the Beautiful Blond Viking God," but his career ground to a halt when he joined the Marines to serve in World War II, resulting in a five-year absence from the screen. Upon returning from duty, he continued acting with Blaze of Noon, but after half a decade away from the screen, his career stalled, and apart from a brief appearance later that year in Variety Girl, no other offers came his way for some time. Finally, in 1949, Hayden resurfaced in a John Wayne Western, El Paso, and a film noir, Manhandled. The following year, he starred in John Huston's classic noir The Asphalt Jungle, portraying an ill-fated small-time hood -- a career-defining role. Still, he spent the majority of the early decade in a variety of other genre outings, many of them Westerns (including the 1953 Nicholas Ray cult classic Johnny Guitar). In 1956, Hayden teamed for the first time with director Stanley Kubrick, headlining the oft-imitated and widely acclaimed crime story The Killing.

Hayden's career flagged during the years to follow, however. Saddled with a series of lackluster films, he finally left acting in 1958 to return to the sea, and spent the next six years away from Hollywood. In 1963, he even published an autobiography, Wanderer, detailing his ocean adventures as well as his regret for cooperating with the House Un-American Activities Commission during the McCarthy era. Finally, Hayden returned to film in 1964 to reunite with Kubrick on the brilliant satire Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Apart from the television feature Carol for Another Christmas, however, he again quit acting to sail, and did not return prior to 1969's Cipolla Colt. He enjoyed another career resurrection with Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 classic The Godfather, and a year later co-starred in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. In 1976, Hayden appeared in Bernardo Bertolucci's Novecento, and also published the historical epic Voyage: A Novel of 1896. After working infrequently over the course of the following decade, he died in Sausalito, CA, on May 23, 1986, at the age of 70.

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  • Dropped out of high school to pursue his love of sailing; served as a sailor and fireman on vessels and eventually captained a ship around the world at age 22.
  • Took up modeling and acting in order to financially support his sailing hobby; received his first movie contract with Paramount Pictures in 1940.
  • Promoted by Paramount as "The Most Beautiful Man in the Movies" and "The Beautiful Blond Viking God."
  • Served in World War II for the Office of Strategic Services under the pseudonym John Hamilton; awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action.
  • Testified for the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951, admitting his past membership with the Communist party and naming names. 
  • A custody battle with his second wife, Betty Ann de Noon, caused him to leave Hollywood in 1959; defied court orders and sailed with his children to the South Seas, which inspired his 1963 autobiography Wanderer.