Happy birthday to actor and author Sterling Hayden who would’ve turned 92 today. I’ve long admired Hayden’s presence in gritty, ’50s-era film noirs such as Crime Wave and Stanley Kubrick‘s The Killing but he’s probably best known for his role as “General Jack D. Ripper” in Kubrick’s 1964 satire Dr. Strangelove as well as his cameo in The Godfather.
Hayden was a complex man who claimed to hate acting, preferring to live his life at sea. The New Jersey native first ran away from home at the age of 17, joining a fishing crew in Newfoundland before landing his own command two years later. Spotted by a casting director, Hayden headed to Hollywood in the late ’30s and made his film debut in 1941’s Virginia but abandoned the glitter to become an undercover agent for the OSS in World War II. A brief fling with communism led him to name names to HUAC in the ’50s, an act that haunted him for the rest of his life. Hayden returned to Hollywood appearing in such cult classics as Johnny Guitar with Joan Crawford and director John Huston‘s The Asphalt Jungle before walking away a second time in 1959 — defying the courts orders by sailing to Tahiti with his four children during divorce proceedings. The voyage was documented in his 1963 autobiography, Wanderer, which I actually just started reading this week.
A lifetime of drinking and drifting eventually caught up with the actor, who made no bones about the mercenary nature of his work on the big screen. He passed away from prostate cancer in 1986 at the age of 70.