Sterling Hayden

Sterling Walter Hayden (born Sterling Relyea Walter; March 26, 1916 – May 23, 1986) was an American actor, author, and sailor. A leading man for most of his career, he specialized in westerns and film noir throughout the 1950s, in films such as John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Joan Crawford's Johnny Guitar (1954), and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956). He became noted for supporting roles in the 1960s, perhaps most memorably as General Jack D. Ripper in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).

Sterling Hayden
Hayden in 1953
Sterling Relyea Walter

(1916-03-26)March 26, 1916
DiedMay 23, 1986(1986-05-23) (aged 70)
Other namesSterling Walter Hayden
John Hamilton
OccupationActor, author, sailor, model, Marine, OSS agent
Years active1941–82
Height6 ft 5 in (1.96 m)
Spouse(s)Madeleine Carroll (1942–46)
Betty Ann de Noon (1947–58)
Catherine Devine McConnell (1960–86)

Hayden's success continued into the New Hollywood era, with roles such as Irish-American policeman Captain McCluskey in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972), alcoholic novelist Roger Wade in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973), and elderly peasant Leo Dalcò in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 (1976). With a distinctive "rapid-fire baritone" voice and standing at 6 feet 5 inches (1.96 m),[2][3] he had a commanding screen presence in both leading and supporting roles.


Youth and education

Hayden was born March 26, 1916, in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, to George and Frances Walter, who named him Sterling Relyea Walter.[4][5] After his father died, he was adopted at age 9 by James Hayden and renamed Sterling Walter Hayden. As a child he lived in coastal towns of New England,[6] and in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and Maine. He attended Wassookeag School in Dexter, Maine.

Hayden dropped out of high school at the age of 16 and took a job as mate on a schooner.[1] His first voyage was to Newport Beach, California, from New London, Connecticut.[6] Later, he was a fisherman on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, ran a charter yacht, and served as a fireman on 11 trips to Cuba aboard a steamer.[6]

He skippered a trading schooner in the Caribbean after earning his master's license, and in 1937 he served as mate on a world cruise of the schooner Yankee.[6] After serving as sailor and fireman on larger vessels and sailing around the world several times, he was awarded his first command at age 22, skippering the square rigger Florence C. Robinson 7,700 miles from Gloucester, Massachusetts, to Tahiti in 1938.[6][7][8] Hayden spoke of his nautical experiences before the monthly meeting of the Adventurers' Club of New York on March 21, 1940.[9]

Early Hollywood years

In 1938 Hayden's photo was taken during the annual Gloucester, Massachusetts, Fishermen's Race. It went on the cover of a magazine prompting Paramount Pictures to call and offer a screen test. Hayden did a test in New York with Jeanne Cagney, James Cagney's sister. Hayden:

I was completely lost, ignorant, nervous. But the next thing I knew, Paramount made me a seven-year contract beginning at $250 a week, which was astronomical. I got my lovely old mother and bought a car, and we drove to California... I was so lost then I didn't think to analyze it. I said, 'This is nuts, but, damned, it's pleasant.' I had only one plan in mind: to get $5,000. I knew where there was a schooner, and then I'd haul ass.[10]

Hayden went to Paramount in May 1940.[11]

Paramount dubbed the 6′5″ (1.96 m) actor "The Most Beautiful Man in the Movies" and "The Beautiful Blond Viking God."

His first film, Virginia (1941), directed by Edward H. Griffith, starred Madeleine Carroll whom he married. He, Griffith and Carroll were reunited in Bahama Passage (1941).

In December 1941, it was reported that he had quit Hollywood saying "I'm no actor! I'm a sailor."[12]

War service

After two film roles, he left Hollywood to fight in World War II. He enlisted in the army, trained in Scotland, but broke his ankle and was let out.[13]

He returned to the US and tried to buy a half-interest in a schooner but could not raise the money. He joined the United States Marine Corps as a private, under the name John Hamilton, an alias he never used otherwise. While at Parris Island, he was recommended for Officer Candidate School.

After graduation, he was commissioned a second lieutenant and was transferred to service as an undercover agent with William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan's Office of the Coordinator of Information. He remained there after it became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).[14][15][16]

As OSS agent John Hamilton, his World War II service included sailing with supplies from Italy to Yugoslav partisans and parachuting into fascist Croatia. Hayden, who also participated in the Naples–Foggia campaign and established air crew rescue teams in enemy-occupied territory, became a first lieutenant on September 13, 1944, and a captain on February 14, 1945.

He received the Silver Star (for gallantry in action in the Balkans and Mediterranean; "Lt. Hamilton displayed great courage in making hazardous sea voyages in enemy-infested waters and reconnaissance through enemy-held areas"), a Bronze Arrowhead device for parachuting behind enemy lines, and a commendation from Yugoslavia's Josip Broz Tito. He left active duty on December 24, 1945.[16] Tito awarded him the Order of Merit.[17]

Return to Hollywood

He returned to the US and told the press "I feel a real obligation to make this a better country – and I believe the movies are the place to do it."[18]

Hayden returned to Paramount. A friend, Captain Tomkins, started writing a book about him but it was not finished.

He was cast as one of several brothers in an aviation film, Blaze of Noon (1947). The studio suspended him when he turned down a role in The Sainted Sisters.[19]

The Red Scare

Hayden's great admiration for the bravery of the Communist partisans led to a brief membership in the Communist Party from 1946.[13]

He was apparently active in supporting an effort by the Communist-controlled motion picture painters union to absorb other film industry unions.[20] As the Red Scare deepened in the U.S., he cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee, confessing his brief Communist ties and "naming names."[4]

He later said "the FBI made it very clear to me that, if I became an 'unfriendly witness,' I could damn well forget the custody of my children. I didn't want to go to jail, that was the other thing."[10]

Hayden had to testify publicly. He declared joining the party was "the stupidest and most ignorant thing I have ever done in my life."[13] He says he had quit the party but been persuaded to return by Karen Morley.[13]

His wife at that time, Betty de Noon (m 1947),[21] insisted that the names her ex-husband provided were already in the hands of the committee, which had a copy of the Communist Party's membership list.

In any event, Hayden subsequently repudiated his cooperation with the committee, stating in his autobiography, "I don't think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing."[4]

Hayden made two films for Pine Thomas Productions who distributed through Paramount: a western, El Paso (1949), supporting John Payne; and Manhandled (1949), a thriller with Dorothy Lamour.

Film career

Hayden's career received a boost when cast by John Huston in the starring role of MGM's heist thriller, The Asphalt Jungle (1950). It was only a minor hit but was highly regarded critically and established Hayden as a leading man.

He played a minister who doubts his faith in Journey into Light (1952), then supported Bette Davis as The Star (1952). It was not a large success but Flaming Feather (1952), a western, did well.

He followed it with a series of action films: Denver and Rio Grande (1952), a western, for Paramount; Hellgate (1952), another western; The Golden Hawk (1952), a pirate swashbuckler for producer Sam Katzman; Flat Top (1952), a Korean War drama; Fighter Attack (1953), a World War Two film.[22]

In 1952, while divorcing his second wife, the court heard Hayden made $100,000 the previous year.[23]

Hayden then starred in So Big (1953), a melodrama from an Edna Ferber novel starring Jane Wyman, then it was back to medium budget action films: Take Me to Town (1953), a western with Ann Sheridan; Kansas Pacific (1953), a western for Walter Mirisch; Crime Wave (1954), a film noir.[24]

He had a support role in a big studio picture, Prince Valiant (1954), playing Sir Gawain, then returned to more conventional material with Arrow in the Dust. Johnny Guitar (1954) was another western, but this time with Joan Crawford and Nick Ray; it was a hit and became a cult favourite. It was financed by Republic Pictures, which used Hayden on several occasions.[25]

There were some film noirs: Naked Alibi (1954) with Gloria Grahame and Suddenly (1954) with Frank Sinatra. Then it was action: Battle Taxi (1954), a Korean War movie; Timberjack (1955), a western for Republic; Shotgun (1955), a western with Yvonne de Carlo; The Eternal Sea (1955), a World War Two naval story; Top Gun (1955), a western for producer Edward Small.

The Last Command (1955) was the story of the Alamo for Republic, with Hayden as Jim Bowie. The Come On (1956) was a film noir with Anne Baxter. Hayden also began appearing on TV shows such as Celebrity Playhouse.

The Killing

Hayden was cast in a heist film which turned out to be a classic: The Killing (1956), an early work from director Stanley Kubrick.

He remained a "B picture" star though: Crime of Passion (1957), a noir; 5 Steps to Danger (1957), a mystery film; Valerie (1957), a western "noir"; Zero Hour! (1957), a disaster film; Gun Battle at Monterey (1957), a western; The Iron Sheriff (1957), a western for Edward Small; Ten Days to Tulara (1958), an adventure film; Terror in a Texas Town (1958), a western.[26]

He also worked a lot on television, appearing on shows such as Zane Grey Theater, Wagon Train, General Electric Theater, Schlitz Playhouse, Playhouse 90, Goodyear Theatre, and The DuPont Show of the Month.


Hayden often professed distaste for film acting, saying he did it mainly to pay for his ships and voyages. In 1958, after a bitter divorce from Betty Ann de Noon, Hayden was awarded custody of his children.[27]

He defied a court order and sailed to Tahiti with all four children, Christian, Dana, Gretchen and Matthew.[28]

"I'd had it," he said. "One way or another, I felt that I had sold out – or failed – at almost everything in my whole life. It was either turn things around or hang myself."[29]

The crew sailed from San Francisco Bay to Tahiti, where Hayden had planned to film a movie. Hayden also invited well-known photographer Dody Weston Thompson along to document the trip and to help shoot location choices. Her South Seas folio contains photographs of Hayden's schooner, The Wanderer; on-deck photos of life aboard the ship; colorful prints of his children, Tahitian women and children; and unique artifacts on shore. The film never materialized; however, according to Dody's notes, U.S. Camera and Travel printed her photographs of paradise in 1961. Marin County Superior Court Judge Harold Haley later ordered Hayden to repay Republic Pictures nearly $50,000 to recover the cost of financing the trip.[30]

In 1960, he married Catherine Devine McConnell. They had two sons, Andrew and David, and were married until his death in 1986. McConnell also had a son (Scott McConnell) from her first marriage to Neil McConnell, an heir to Avon's founding family.

In November 1960 he said he was a "sailor or writer" rather than an actor.[31]

In the early 1960s, Hayden rented one of the pilot houses of the retired ferryboat Berkeley, docked in Sausalito, California, where he resided while writing his autobiography Wanderer, which was first published in 1963. In it, he reminisces about turning points in his life:

The sun beats down and you pace, you pace and you pace. Your mind flies free and you see yourself as an actor, condemned to a treadmill wherein men and women conspire to breathe life into a screenplay that allegedly depicts life as it was in the old wild West. You see yourself coming awake any one of a thousand mornings between the spring of 1954, and that of 1958—alone in a double bed in a big white house deep in suburban Sherman Oaks, not far from Hollywood.

The windows are open wide, and beyond these is the backyard swimming pool inert and green, within a picket fence. You turn and gaze at a pair of desks not far from the double bed. This is your private office, the place that shelters your fondest hopes: these desks so neat, patiently waiting for the day that never comes, the day you'll sit down at last and begin to write.

Why did you never write? Why, instead, did you grovel along, through the endless months and years, as a motion‑picture actor? What held you to it, to something you so vehemently professed to despise? Could it be that you secretly liked it—that the big dough and the big house and the high life meant more than the aura you spun for those around you to see?

"Hayden's wild," they said. "He's kind of nuts—but you've got to hand it to him. He doesn't give a damn about the loot or the stardom or things like that—something to do with his seafaring, or maybe what he went through in the war . . ."[4]:151

Later career

In 1964 Hayden appeared in A Carol for Another Christmas on TV. The same year he played one of his best-known characters, the deranged General Jack D. Ripper the Kubrick-directed Dr. Strangelove.

Hayden bought a canal barge in the Netherlands in 1969, eventually moving it to the heart of Paris and living on it part of the time. He also shared a home in Wilton, Connecticut, with his family and had an apartment in Sausalito.

He returned to filmmaking with Hard Contract (1969), supporting James Coburn and Loving (1970).

"I'll go back to Hollywood to pick up a dollar, but that's all," he said. "Everything is wrong with that city."[32]

Hayden went to Europe where he appeared in Ternos Caçadores (1970), Angel's Leap (1971) and Le grand départ (1972). He had small but important roles in The Godfather (1972) and The Long Goodbye (1973).

He made some films in Europe: The Final Programme (1973), Deadly Strangers (1975), Cipolla Colt (1975) and 1900 (1975). He was offered the role of "Quint" in Jaws (1975) but turned it down.[33]

In the 1970s, after his appearance in The Godfather, he appeared several times on NBC's Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder, where he talked about his career resurgence and how it had funded his travels and adventures around the world.

He appeared on The Starlost, and Banacek.

He returned to Hollywood for King of the Gypsies (1978), Winter Kills (1979), The Outsider (1980), 9 to 5 (1980), Gas (1981), Venom (1981) and The Blue and the Gray (1982).

In 1981 he was arrested for possession of hashish at Toronto International Airport.[34]

Hayden wrote two acclaimed books: an autobiography, Wanderer (1962), and a novel, Voyage (1976). He says they made him "a lot of money" but he lost most of it to the government in taxes.[35]

In 1983 he appeared in a documentary of his life, Pharos of Chaos.[36]


Hayden was married three times.

  • Madeleine Carroll, 1942–1946.
  • Betty Ann de Noon, 1947–1958. They had four children, Christian, Dana, Gretchen and Matthew.
  • Catherine Devine McConnell, 1960–1986. They had two children, Andrew and David.


Sterling Hayden died of prostate cancer in Sausalito in 1986, age 70.[1]

Military awards

Here are the awards that Sterling Hayden received during World War II:

Silver Star Medal
American Campaign Medal
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with Arrowhead Device and 1 bronze service star
World War II Victory Medal

In the film Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, 1975), two veteran CIA officers were reminiscing about their past. Higgins (Cliff Robertson) asked Mr. Wabash, "You served with Col. Donovan in the OSS, didn't you, sir?" Wabash (John Houseman) replies, "I sailed the Adriatic with a movie star at the helm. It doesn't seem like much of a war now, but it was."

In 2011 the American singer-songwriter Tom Russell released the song "Sterling Hayden" on his album Mesabi.

Hayden, under his nom de guerre Lieutenant John Hamilton, and his role as an OSS agent play a secondary part in the 2012 novel Death's Door: A Billy Boyle World War II mystery by author James R. Benn. Hayden/Hamilton assists in getting protagonist Billy Boyle through German-occupied Italy.[37]



  • Wanderer. New York: Knopf. 1963. ISBN 1-57409-048-8.
  • Voyage: A Novel of 1896. New York: Putnam. 1976. ISBN 0-399-11665-6.

See also


  1. Krebs, Albin (May 24, 1986). "Sterling Hayden Dead at 70; an Actor, Writer and Sailor". The New York Times. Retrieved August 13, 2017.
  3. Hayden 1977, p. 224
  4. Hayden 1998, pp. 65–66, 76, 354
  5. United States Census for 1920, Montclair Town, Essex County, New Jersey, p. Sheet 6B
  6. "Sterling Hayden Gives Up Sailing, Settles For Movie Career, Family". Toledo Blade. Google News. January 14, 1951. Archived from the original on January 25, 2013. Retrieved October 8, 2009.
  7. Hayden 1977, pp. 225–227
  8. "New in the News", Boys' Life, Feb 1939, p. 25
  9. "Report of the March Meeting." The Adventurer, April 1940.
  10. Sterling Hayden's a seadog at heart Peary, Gerald. The Globe and Mail3 Feb 1984: E.3.
  11. Mariner to Sail Film Seas The Christian Science Monitor (1908-Current file); Boston, Mass. [Boston, Mass]09 May 1940: 14.
  12. ""The Real Reason Why Sterling Hayden Quit Hollywood"". Photoplay. 1941. Retrieved December 4, 2019.
  13. Sterling Hayden Was a Red; 'Stupidest Thing I Ever Did': New York Times 11 Apr 1951: 1.
  14. "Chef Julia Child, others, part of WWII spy network". Associated Press. August 14, 2008. Archived from the original on August 22, 2008.
  15. Schlesinger, Robert (August 20, 2008). "Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s Not-So-Secret Career as a Spy". US News and World Report. Retrieved October 8, 2009.
  16. Schuon, Karl (1963). U. S. Marine Corps Biographical Dictionary. New York: Watts. pp. 99–100. OCLC 1360534.
  17. Yugoslavs Reward Sterling Hayden in Toting Guns to Tito By the Associated Press. The Washington Post 16 Feb 1946: 9.
  18. Sterling Hayden Returns From War With New Ideal Scheuer, Philip K. Los Angeles Times 21 Apr 1946: B1.
  19. DRAMA AND FILM: Sterling Hayden Joins Suspended Star List Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]09 Oct 1947: A9.
  20. Meroney, John, "Left in the Past", LA Times Magazine, February 2012.
  21. Sterling Hayden Weds on Coast New York Times 26 Apr 1947: 10.
  22. Sterling Hayden In Prison Film The Christian Science Monitor 21 Nov 1952: 9.
  23. Sterling Hayden Sued by Wife for 4 Children Los Angeles Times 27 Nov 1952: 4.
  24. Drama: 'Kansas Pacific' Will Star Sterling Hayden Los Angeles Times 11 June 1952: A10
  25. TO DO A WESTERN: Film, to Be Made Next Year, Will End His Commitments With Allied Artists By THOMAS M. PRYOR New York Times 6 July 1954: 19.
  26. Sterling Hayden to Do Dual Starring; Pavlowa Proposed for Charisse Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 11 Apr 1957: A13.
  27. Actor Sterling Hayden to Keep Four Children Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]16 Jan 1959: 26.
  28. "HOLLYWOOD: To Break Out". TIME. New York: Time Inc. February 9, 1959. Retrieved July 6, 2010.
  29. Former OSS Agent, Sea Captain Actor Sterling Hayden Dies at 70: [Home Edition] Thackrey, Ted, Jr. Los Angeles Times 24 May 1986: 1.
  30. "Film Actor Handed $49,518 Judgment". Reading Eagle. Reading, Pennsylvania. Associated Press. August 6, 1961. p. 12. Retrieved July 6, 2010.
  31. Blue Book Upsets Sterling Hayden Los Angeles Times 24 Nov 1960: 7.
  32. Obituaries: 'Strangelove' star Sterling Hayden, 70 Chicago Tribune 24 May 1986: A12.
  33. MOVIES: Sterling Hayden: Still afloat after stormy seas MOVIES Base, Ron. Chicago Tribune 1 Feb 1981: d13.
  34. IN BRIEF Sterling Hayden faces drug count The Globe and Mail17 Apr 1981: P.4.
  35. RODERICK MANN: Sterling Hayden: The Beard Must Remain Los Angeles Times 26 Dec 1978: g10.
  36. A PROFILE OF STERLING HAYDEN Maslin, Janet. New York Times13 Oct 1983: C.13.
  37. Benn, James R. (2012). Deaths Door: A Billy Boyle World War II mystery. New York City: Soho Press. ISBN 978-1-61695-185-6.


  • Hayden, Sterling (1977). Wanderer. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-07521-4.
  • Hayden, Sterling (1998). Wanderer. Dobbs Ferry: Sheridan House. ISBN 978-1-57409-048-2.

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