Newsletter: Classic Hollywood: A salute to Sterling Hayden, and Charlton Heston memorabilia for sale

This is Kevin Crust and I am your new tour guide as we continue to write about notable birthdays and deaths, movie and TV milestones, fun events around town and the latest in DVDs, soundtracks and books every Friday in our Classic Hollywood newsletter. You can also follow us on the Classic Hollywood Los Angeles Times Facebook page and our film staff will continue to write about historic Tinseltown.  

Say, I know that guy

The first time I saw “The Asphalt Jungle,” Ben Maddow and John Huston’s adaptation of the W.R. Burnett novel, I thought, “Boy, that Dix Handley fella sure looks familiar ...”

Of course, in those pre-iMDb days, it took me a little longer to realize that Sterling Hayden, the actor who played Dix, was also the insane Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomband the corrupt police Capt. McCluskey in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” not to mention a slew of other notable roles I had yet to catch up with.

Long before Clint Eastwood narrowed his gaze, Hayden stared down the barrel of many an onscreen gun in often-doomed roles. Beginning Thursday, the American Cinematheque honors the silver screen tough guy with “A Centennial Salute to Sterling Hayden,” featuring seven films over four days at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

“The Killing”

Sterling Hayden in "The Killing."

(American Cinematheque)

A reluctant performer, Hayden was once promoted by Paramount as “The Most Beautiful Man in Movies” before settling into a long career as a character actor. At nearly 6 feet 5, he often towered intimidatingly over his co-stars, literally casting a long shadow.

“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.” Fortunately, no one ever did.

As diverse as Hayden’s Hollywood career was, his off-screen life was even more interesting, recounted in his bestselling autobiography, “Wanderer.” A high school dropout, he ran away and got a job as a seaman on a schooner and by 22 was the captain of a ship. His good looks earned him a Hollywood screen test and a seven-year contract with Paramount, but he left to join the Marines in World War II, and later found himself parachuting into fascist Croatia as a secret operative for the O.S.S.

Following the war, Hayden briefly joined the Communist Party, but quickly became disenchanted, leading him to name names in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. “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.”

Hayden said he acted to finance his seafaring and frequently took sabbaticals to travel the world. Married three times, his personal life was equally adventurous and in 1955 he defied a court order and took his children on a yacht to Tahiti, returning only after his ex-wife had depleted his finances and he was forced to declare bankruptcy. He continued to work into his 60s, revving up his career when he needed money. Hayden died in Sausalito in 1986 at the age of 70.

In addition to the opening-night double feature of “Naked Alibi” and “Suddenly,” the series includes Hayden in Kubrick’s “The Killing” and Nicholas Ray’s “Johnny Guitar,” opposite Joan Crawford.

Sneak peek

In this Sunday’s Classic Hollywood column, Susan King visits with Lainie Kazan, who returns in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” once again playing Nia Vardalos’ mom. From serving as Barbra Streisand’s understudy in “Funny Girl” on Broadway to starring in both the 1982 film ”My Favorite Year” and its 1992 musical stage adaptation and numerous other roles, Kazan has carved out a niche as a brassy, often maternal, character actress and singer. She even performed the Quincy Jones-Bob Russell song “The Eyes of Love” from the movie “Banning” at the 1968 Academy Awards. What, you don’t remember “Banning”?  

No prying required

Feeling his 2nd Amendment rights were under assault by then-presidential candidate Al Gore, Charlton Heston famously brandished a gold-plated rifle and declared he would give it up when it was pried from his “cold, dead hands.”

You won’t have to go to such lengths to acquire some of the Oscar-winning actor’s other possessions when Bonhams and Turner Classic Movies auction more than 300 items from Heston’s Los Angeles home on Tuesday. The Charlton Heston Collection includes movie memorabilia, props, scripts, fine art, jewelry and rare books.

Among the items available are a director’s chair with Heston’s name on it (estimated at $800-$1,200), the door knockers from “Ben-Hur” ($3,000-$5,000), and his script for that film ($12,000-$18,000).

“The Ten Commandments”

A scene from "The Ten Commandments."

(Paramount Pictures)

If you are looking for a less pricey way to remember the actor, the “TCM Big Screen Classics” series from Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events presents the Easter perennial “The Ten Commandments,” starring Heston as the stone tablet-wielding Moses. The 1956 epic, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, screens at more than 650 theaters nationwide on Sunday and Wednesday. Yul BrynnerAnne Baxter and Edward G. Robinson also star.

When the film opened, Times critic Philip K. Scheuer wrote, “‘The Ten Commandments’ proves, once again and at last again, the power of which the screen is capable. To one who is a movie fan from way back, who has too often been disheartened by evidence to the contrary, this is the great news about this great picture.”

DVD vault

On Tuesday, Criterion releases a new digital restoration of Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” on Blu-ray. The film opened in 1931, the first silent to be released after two years of talkies (though it did include sound effects) and was a great success. The Times reported, however, that it would not deter the march of talkies as the dominant form of cinema. Paramount executive B.P. Schulberg said that “until the screen miraculously procures a whole flock of Chaplins, dialogue will be preferred to silence.”

The new disc includes audio commentary by biographer Jeffrey Vance, the 2003 documentary “Chaplin Today: ‘City Lights,’” archival footage from the production, a scene not used in the film and an excerpt from Chaplin’s 1915 short “The Champion” (1915), along with a booklet featuring an essay by critic Gary Giddins and a 1966 interview with Chaplin.

Don’t touch that dial!

With “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” hitting theaters next week, it might be fun to catch up with the Caped Crusader and Man of Steel’s first big-screen incarnations. On Wednesday at 5 p.m., Turner Classic Movies launches “From Comics to Film” featuring two chapters each from Columbia’s “Batman” (1943), “Batman and Robin” (1949), “The Phantom” (1943), “Superman” (1948) and “Atom Man vs. Superman” (1950); Universal’s “Ace Drummond,” “Buck Rogers” (1939), “The Green Hornet,” and “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe” (1940); Republic’s “Dick Tracy” (1937); and RKO’s attempt at a feature-length comics adaptation, “Dick Tracy” (1945).  

From the Hollywood Star Walk

Notable births this week include Peter Graves (March 18); Charley Pride (March 18); Vanessa Williams (March 18); Glenn Close (March 20); Louis Hayward (March 20); Bruce Willis (March 20); Holly Hunter (March 20); Ozzie Nelson (March 20); Carl Reiner (March 20); Fred Rogers (March 20); Matthew Broderick (March 21); Karl Malden (March 22); William Shatner (March 22); Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber (March 22); Reese Witherspoon (March 22); and Joan Crawford (March 23).

‘You despise me, don’t you?’

Nobody did creepy like Peter Lorre. A Hungarian-born actor who got his start on stage in Vienna, Lorre earned international fame in Fritz Lang’s “M.” He made his English-language debut in Alfred Hitchcock’s original “The Man Who Knew Too Much” before arriving in Hollywood. He starred opposite Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca,” and also appeared in Frank Capra’s “Arsenic and Old Lace” and the Disney film “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

Read the Los Angeles Times obituary from March 24, 1964.

“The Maltese Falcon”

Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet in "The Maltese Falcon."

(Warner Bros.)