You need to be a certain type of movie fan, or else of a certain age, to know who Sterling Hayden was. Hayden would have turned 100 on March 26. He died in 1986. Search his name on the Internet Movie Database and you get “Sterling Hayden, Actor, ‘The Godfather’ (1972),” along with a thumbnail of Hayden in “Dr. Strangelove” (1964).
As one-two punches go, that’s hard to beat. Captain McCluskey, in “Godfather,” is the crooked cop who breaks Michael Corleone’s jaw, later getting a bullet each through throat and forehead as comeuppance. General Jack D. Ripper, in “Strangelove,” not only sets off nuclear Armageddon — in a comedy, no less— but bestows on an unsuspecting world the phrase “precious bodily fluids.”
Either role would have secured its actor a place in movie history. So what if McCluskey has barely nine minutes of screen time, and Ripper does himself in well before fistfights break out in the Pentagon War Room. Sterling Hayden didn’t need much time to make an impression.
He mostly played cops and crooks and cowboys, the type of guy whose necktie (when he wears one) barely reaches his sternum. Yet for someone who could just crank them out, starring in no fewer than six movies each in 1952, ’54, ’55, and ’57, Hayden managed to appear in some terrific — and more-than-terrific — movies. Preceding “Godfather” and “Strangelove” were “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950), “Johnny Guitar” (1954), and “The Killing” (1956). Still to come were “The Long Goodbye” (1973) and “1900” (1976). It takes a special kind of actor to get cast by John Huston, Nicholas Ray, Stanley Kubrick (twice), Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, and Bernardo Bertolucci.
What Hayden did offscreen was, if anything, even more memorable. A high school dropout, he was at various times a seaman, a Gloucester fisherman, a war hero, a Communist, a Red Scare government informant, a memoirist and novelist, and deeply conflicted about making a living at what he called “the rancid corner of Hollywood and Vine.” Hayden cut an outsize figure — literally so. As Nina van Pallandt, who plays his wife, describes him in “The Long Goodbye,” “He’s a big man, 6 foot 5, weighs 220 pounds. Once you’ve seen his face, you’ll never forget it.” No, you won’t.
By then, Hayden had the appearance of an Old Testament patriarch, with a bird’s-nest beard and face as seamed as Sinai. The younger, clean-shaven Hayden looked equally striking. With his oxen arms and blonde hair, press agents dubbed him “Thor.” Chris Hemsworth may have been People magazine’s 2014 Sexiest Man Alive. Hayden was the Most Virile of any year. As John Carradine says to him in “Johnny Guitar,” “That’s a lot of man you’re carrying in those boots, stranger.”
Hayden always seems to move at right angles onscreen. His range was limited and actorly nuance close to nil. Niceties of expression and manner were pretty much beyond him. The climax of “The Asphalt Jungle” hinges on his character being from Kentucky. Once or twice Hayden attempts a drawl. Not a good idea. In the 1958 western “Terror in a Texas Town,” he affects — and that is the word — a Swedish accent that’s even less plausible than his weapon of choice being a harpoon.
Hayden’s acting arsenal, such as it was, consisted of blunt instruments. They could be no less effective for that bluntness. He grunted with more eloquence than most actors bring to Shakespeare, and he showed how much more can be done with less. In “Suddenly” (1955), he plays a smalltown police chief being held captive by Frank Sinatra’s hit man. As performers, it’s Hayden holding Sinatra hostage. His underplaying makes Sinatra’s twitches and mannered line readings almost unbearable.
Even in his early, Viking-god beefcake phase, the camera never worshipped Hayden. His eyes are too small. His pursey mouth and stuck-out lower lip give him Donald Trump’s scowl. What the camera did do was respect him. It was more than just how imposing he was physically. As sheer screen presence, Hayden was indelible. He had a unique forcefulness. He’s a homicide detective in “Crime Wave” (1954). Trying to quit smoking, he spends the movie chewing on a tooth pick. It must have been one tough tooth pick. “Murder is my business,” he says, “and midnight is my beat.” The pulp over-ripeness of that sentence would sound silly from someone else. Growled by Hayden, it’s like a line in the sand — a line you definitely don’t want to cross.
Hayden was the rare action star who when he threw a punch you never doubted the weight behind it. Experience, even more than muscle, informed his presence. This was a man who’d sailed windjammers to Tahiti, survived nor’easters on the Grand Banks, and served in the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) running guns to Tito’s Partisans during World War II.
Strength can take many forms. Did any other actor, let alone any younger actor, partner on screen with all three empresses of Studio Age melodrama: Bette Davis (“The Star,” 1952), Joan Crawford (“Johnny Guitar”), and Barbara Stanwyck (“Crime of Passion,” 1955)? What’s more, Hayden lived to tell the tale. He and Stanwyck in particular are a fine match, strength matched with strength.
Hayden conveyed a rare sense of wary, thwarted intelligence. Even when his characters are crazy, like General Ripper, they aren’t stupid. They’re smart enough to know that higher forces are in control. Maybe that’s what kept Hayden from full-fledged stardom. A true star utterly believes in his or her own power. Stars are like royalty that way, absolute monarchs. Hayden, a natural anarchist, knew better. “Johnny, you’ve got to run!” Coleen Gray says to him at the end of “The Killing.” “Nah,” he murmurs, “what’s the difference.” It’s a statement, not a question.
Listen closely to Hayden’s strapping baritone and you can hear more than a hint of sneer. What makes the sneer so affecting is that it’s at least partly self-directed. Robert Mitchum made a career, and inspired a mystique, through not caring. Hayden did him one better. He didn’t even care about not caring. He . . . just . . . didn’t . . . care — period. “I couldn’t take it seriously because it seemed so ridiculous,” he said of Hollywood in a 1984 French television interview.
Hayden was a pro. He didn’t mail in a performance. But that’s the point. Watching him, you see a man doing his job without ever pretending to be doing anything more. Art? Ambition? Vanity? You’ve got to be kidding. Instead, there’s the fatalism of Hayden’s cop in “Crime Wave” saying to his chief suspect, “You know, it isn’t what a man wants to do, Lacey. It’s what he has to do.”
The corollary to Hayden’s resigned professionalism is a constant threat of abandon, a threat that becomes act (not quite the same thing as acting) in his finest performances. It’s there in Ripper’s paranoia, McCluskey’s throwing that punch (what sensible man would ever belt Vito Corleone’s son?), or the manic-depression of Roger Wade, the Hemingway-esque novelist in “The Long Goodbye.” Hayden was himself a gifted writer, and a feeling of kinship is palpable. When Wade says “I’m a man that cannot stand confinement” you know he’s speaking for Hayden, too.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.