Former OSS Agent, Sea Captain : Actor Sterling Hayden Dies at 70

Times Staff Writer

Maverick actor Sterling Hayden, the one-time Hollywood leading man whose restlessness led him through careers as a sea captain, OSS agent and gun-runner to ultimate success as an author and respected character actor, died Friday at his home in Sausalito.

Hayden, 70, had been undergoing treatment for cancer for several months.

“It was a quiet passing,” said his son-in-law, George Ruckert. “He more or less went in his sleep.”

In addition to his wife, Catherine, who was with him at the time of his death, Hayden leaves a daughter and five sons.


Funeral services will be private, and the family asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Hospice of Marin of San Rafael.

News of Hayden’s long illness had generally been kept quiet; thus his death became a sudden end to a vivid story.

Actor, author and adventurer, Hayden’s life--even toned down and examined in his autobiography--seemed almost the stuff of fable; a Hollywood publicity writer’s dream run amok.

“He was always somehow larger than life,” Howard Skiles wrote in a profile published a decade ago. “Here was this handsome-as-hell youngster and he becomes a movie star overnight and then the war comes along and he goes into the Marine Corps and gets a medal for derring-do with the Office of Strategic Services, and then he comes home and makes more pictures and kidnaps his kids and sails away to the South Seas and writes a best seller and--Jesus!--you name it.

“You just couldn’t imagine all that strength and energy failing to do anything it set out to do. He was like a force of nature; an element.

“That he could also act--really act; bring a true character to life on the screen--was sort of like putting a few stray diamonds on top of a solid-gold Cadillac. . . . “


But Hayden never believed it.

“When I was a kid and getting paid to stand in front of a camera,” he told an interviewer in 1972, “I used to spend a lot of my time just laughing inside about the whole thing. It wasn’t real to me. I couldn’t act and I damn well knew it. I kept expecting someone to see the joke and call the whole thing off at any moment.

“When they didn’t, I was flabbergasted.

“Look, it wasn’t modesty or anything like that. I brag like hell when I’m confident of what I’m doing. Back when I was sailing ships for a living, I would take a schooner up to San Francisco--I had my master’s certificate at 22--and I would tell myself, ‘There isn’t a man in the world can do this better ‘n I can.’ And I meant it.

“But, acting? I spent half my time being amazed and the other half being embarrassed. . . .”

Yet he continued to act--and to gain stature as an actor--throughout his life.

Sterling Relyea Walter was born March 26, 1916, in Montclair, N.J., and the first few years of his life seemed to aim him in a far different direction than the one he finally took. His father was a successful advertising salesman. The family home was large and comfortable. Life was safe and secure.

Spotty Education

But comfort and safety disappeared when he was 9 years old. That was the year his father died. His mother remarried and the new father-figure was a pleasant-enough character who lived on borrowed money and moved the family frequently to avoid creditors.

Sterling, who took his stepfather’s surname of Hayden, acquired a somewhat spotty education in a series of public and private schools, and finally dropped out altogether when he was 16.

“I ran away to sea,” he said. “I know that only happens in fiction. But it’s what I did. I had been hanging around in public libraries, reading sea stories by Melville, Stevenson, Villers, Dana and London. Finally, I just decided the hell with it.

“I found a berth as an ordinary seaman in the schooner Puritan bound from New London to San Pedro--and away I went. . . .”

During the next few years, he was almost constantly at sea in fishing vessels and sailing ships: At 20, he was first mate of the schooner Yankee on a voyage around the world; the following year he was navigator on the Gertrude Thebaud during her historic schooner races with the Bluenose, and at 22 he had his first command--master of the Florence C. Robinson, and youngest man on board, during a voyage to Tahiti.

“I was in heaven,” he recalled. “I thought it would go on that way forever. . . . “

Screen Test Offers

But changes were already in the wind. Newspaper accounts of the Robinson’s voyage described the young, 6-foot, 4-inch skipper as “a blond adonis,” and photographs confirmed the words. Two film studios made tentative screen test offers.

“I just laughed it off at the time,” Hayden said. “But a year or so later, when I had finally managed to buy my own ship only to see her irreparably damaged on her first voyage, a few months in Hollywood seemed like a quick and easy way to get enough dough to buy another one.”

A New York screen test led to a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures, and he found himself playing the second lead in “Virginia,” with Madeline Carroll and Fred MacMurray.

“I was plain awful,” he said. “But no one seemed to care. That’s what just drove me crazy; they simply didn’t care . . . !”

He had a little money by then, and the studio had bought him a new ship. But he didn’t go back to sea at once. There were two reasons: First, the ship was an old schooner with a bottom that turned out to be rotten.

‘Things Got in the Way’

And second, he had married his leading lady.

“Madeline and I got together for a lot of reasons,” he said later, “and one of them was that we both had a lot of skepticism about Hollywood. It might have been enough to keep us together. Maybe. But other things got in the way. . . .”

Things such as World War II, for instance. Hayden saw the conflict as a perfect escape from Hollywood. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marines and transferred to the United States’ wartime spy-and-sabotage agency, the OSS, which sent him back to sea in a series of small, slow boats running arms and ammunition to Josip Broz Tito’s guerrillas in Yugoslavia.

His success won him the Silver Star from his own government and a special citation from Tito. He also operated as an OSS agent in Italy, Germany and other European countries, and had been promoted to captain by the time the war was over and he was ready to resume civilian life.

Marriage Ended

“And I resumed it as a bachelor,” he said. “The wartime separations and other stresses had ended the marriage to Madeline. We met one last time in Paris, in 1946, and we knew, without knowing why, without much discussion, that the marriage had dissolved.”

They were divorced that year. At loose ends and unable to obtain proper financing for a return to the seafaring life, Hayden drifted back to Hollywood, and received a warm welcome from the public and critics alike for his performance as an early airmail pilot in “Blaze of Noon.”

Ensuing roles in “Manhandled” and “El Paso” made him a fairly familiar figure in crime melodramas and Westerns by the time director John Huston picked him for the lead in a low-budget gangster drama, “The Asphalt Jungle,” which turned out to be a classic.

Critics called his portrayal of the doomed hoodlum Dix Handley “dynamic,” “compelling” and “spectacularly controlled and powerful.” And they were generally approving of his subsequent performances in such diverse offerings as “Journey Into Light,” “So Big,” “Arrow in the Dust” and “The Star.”

Headed for New High

Hayden’s performance as a criminal in Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film, “The Killing,” helped turn that picture into a major success, and his career seemed headed for a new high. But Hayden didn’t follow it there.

Instead, he sailed away.

“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.”

Part of his dissatisfaction stemmed from the McCarthy era:

Shortly after the war, he had joined the Communist Party. He dropped out after a few months, but in 1951, when he was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he admitted the membership and identified several former friends as fellow travelers and party members.

“I was,” he later wrote, “a real daddy-longlegs of a worm when it came to crawling. My career got a real boost from my one-shot stoolie show, and all it cost me was lifelong self-disgust.”

And he had been through another divorce.

‘Airborne Crockery’

Hayden’s second marriage, to Betty De Noon, had produced four children--Gretchen, Christian, Matthew and Dana--and what he would later call “some truly picturesque domestic disagreements, complete with airborne crockery.”

The marriage ended in 1955, but the battles did not. Hayden had obtained legal custody of the children. When Hayden obtained financing for a motion picture that was to be made during a voyage around the world in a schooner called Wanderer, which he had chartered and refitted, however, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Emil Gumpert refused permission for the children to make the voyage, on grounds that the ship was unseaworthy and the crew inexperienced.

Hayden was astounded.

“Wanderer was in superb condition, I’d seen to that personally,” he said. “And as for experience, I had held a master’s ticket for more than 20 years and my first mate was Spike Africa, a world-renowned seafarer. In addition, I had signed on a doctor, a schoolteacher and a cook who had a college degree in home economics. What in the hell was the man talking about?”

‘It Ended Too Soon’

So on a quiet Sunday in January, 1959, Hayden loaded the children, the crew--and enough supplies to feed an army--into the schooner and sailed from Sausalito on what he told the court would be a coastal cruise to Santa Barbara.

But he never arrived there. His next landfall was Papeete, Tahiti.

“Sooner or later,” he said, “a man has simply got to do what he thinks is right, no matter what other people, or the courts, or his friends, or his enemies, or God himself may tell him. The trip cost me a fortune. But my only regret was that it ended too soon.”

It ended, specifically, with bankruptcy. Back in the United States, his ex-wife’s lawyers had tied up his bank accounts, and there was nothing to do but sail back home. He spent the next few years making enough pictures to pay debts and bills and taxes.

One of the better-remembered films from that era was “Dr. Strangelove,” in which he played demented Gen. Jack D. Ripper, whose fear of a Communist plot to “pollute our vital bodily juices” leads to nuclear holocaust.

Other Roles

He followed this role with others that were similarly well received: the crooked and brutal police captain who meets a bloody end in an Italian restaurant in “The Godfather,” the patriarchal Italian peasant of “1900,” the retired hit man of “Hard Contract” and the grandfatherly clan leader of “King of the Gypsies.”

And there was the single role in which even he approved of his own performance; the Hemingwayesque portrayal of an alcoholic novelist in “The Long Goodbye.”

He attributed it to “the prodigious powers of pot.” Hayden openly admitted his use of marijuana.

“I was stoned all the way through ‘The Long Goodbye,’ ” he said, “but (director Robert) Altman didn’t object. He told me, ‘If it works for you, go ahead.’ So I did, and that was the first thing I ever did that I could actually stand to watch on the screen--the first time I wasn’t acutely mortified. Well almost anything will work out if you keep at it long enough, I guess.”

Other things were “working out” for him, too.

Book a Success

His first book, an autobiography titled “Wanderer,” was a financial and critical success. He followed it with a well-written and meticulously researched epic novel, “Voyage,” which was a runaway best seller and Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

And his new marriage was solid.

“We have our differences,” he said of third wife Catherine (Kitty) McConnell, to whom he was married in 1960. “I like solitude, she likes people. I like living on boats, she likes living ashore. Sometimes we thought it was too much to take, talked about cutting apart. But we couldn’t, and that’s the way it should be.”

For many years, while their sons, Andrew and David, were growing up, they lived part of the year in Wilton, Conn., and the rest of the time on board a barge, the Who Knows?, moored on the Seine, in the middle of Paris.

Hayden worked, in his last years, about as much as he wanted to.

There was television: He had appeared in early “Du Pont Show of the Week” and “Playhouse 90” productions; now he portrayed John Brown in the 1981 miniseries “The Blue and the Gray.”

At the time of his death, he was at work on the second half of his autobiography.

“I feel sometimes as though I’ve never grown up,” he told an interviewer last year. “And that’s great, because it means there are still possibilities. Nothing’s free. You pay for whatever you get. But that’s OK, because you can’t be cheated.

“If you were willing to pay what the price tag said--well, hell--the price must have been right. . . . “