Louis Hayward, whose debonair charm and athletic good looks made him one of Hollywood's most successful swashbuckling heroes of the 1930s and '40s, died Thursday at Desert Hospital in Palm Springs.
He was 75 and had spent the last year of his life in a battle against cancer, which he attributed to having smoked three packs of cigarettes a day for more than half a century.
A lifelong performer ("I did a Charlie Chaplin imitation for my mother when I was 6 and never really got over it," he told friends), Hayward scored his first major screen success with the 1939 film, "The Man in the Iron Mask," and spent the next decade starring in such adventure films as "Son of Monte Cristo," "The Saint in New York," "The Black Arrow" and "Fortunes of Captain Blood."
"I also did rather creditable acting jobs as the rotten seed in 'My Son, My Son,' and the villainous charmer in 'Ladies in Retirement,' " he said ruefully. "But nobody really cared. They just handed me another sword and doublet and said 'Smile!' "
Born March 19, 1909, in Johannesburg, South Africa, a few weeks after his mining engineer father was killed in an accident, Hayward was taken first to England and then to France, where he attended a number of schools under his real name, Seafield Grant.
He received early training in legitimate theater, appeared for a time with a touring company playing the provinces in England and then took over a small nightclub in London.
"Which is where my career really began," he said. "Noel Coward came in one night; I managed to talk to him for a time and wound up wriggling into a small part in a West End company doing 'Dracula.' "
He followed with roles in "The Vinegar Tree," "Another Language" and "Conversation Piece" before going to New York, where a chance acquaintance with Alfred Lunt led to a role in the Broadway play, "Point Valaine," for which he won the 1934 New York Critics Award.
His first Hollywood efforts in "The Flame Within" and "A Feather in Her Hat" were moderately successful, moderately well-received and almost instantly forgotten.
But then came the 1936 role of Denis Moore in "Anthony Adverse," and studio officials began talking about stardom.
The dual role of Louis XIV and Philippe in "The Man in the Iron Mask" established Hayward as a swashbuckler and was followed by major roles in "And Then There Were None," "Duke of West Point" and similar vehicles.
Hayward, who had become a naturalized U.S. citizen the day before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, served three years in the Marine Corps during World War II, winning the Bronze Star for filming the battle of Tarawa under fire.
Formed Own Company
Returning to films after the war, he formed his own film company and was one of the first stars to demand and get a percentage of the profits from his pictures, which included "Repeat Performance," "Son of Dr. Jekyll," "The Lady in the Iron Mask," "The Saint's Girl Friday," "Duffy of San Quentin" and "The Lone Wolf," which he subsequently turned into a television series, playing the starring role in 78 episodes in the 1960s.
Hayward left Hollywood in the late 1950s to appear in a British television series, "The Pursuers," returning for television appearances in "Studio One" and "Climax" anthology shows and returning to the stage as King Arthur, opposite Kathryn Grayson, in a Los Angeles Civic Light Opera production of "Camelot" in 1963.
His first two marriages, to actress Ida Lupino and to socialite Margaret Morrow, ended in divorce.
Hayward, who had lived in Palm Springs for the last 15 years, is survived by his wife, June, and a son, Dana. At his request, a family spokesman said, no funeral was planned.