Sterling Hayden (1916-86)

Sterling Hayden
Sterling Hayden

Sterling Hayden was an American actor who despised his profession. Nevertheless he rose to the top in a number of highly popular films such as 'The Asphalt Jungle' in 1950, 'Johnny Guitar' in 1954 and 'Dr. Strangelove' in 1964. Even before he began acting, he lived an extraordinary life of adventure, leaving home at 15 to go to sea, getting his first command at 19, then taking an active involvement as a marine in the Second World War in Yugoslavia,winning a Silver Star and a citation from President Tito of Yugoslavia.


He was born Sterling Relyea Walter on March 26, 1916 in Upper Montclair, New Jersey. His father died when Sterling was nine and after his mother remarried, he was adopted by his stepfather James Hayden, and renamed Sterling Walter Hayden.

Ship's Captain

Sterling was brought up in New Hampshire,and Pennsylvania, and went to prep school at Wassookeag School in Dexter, Maine. The sea was his first love and in 1932, aged 16, he dropped out of high school and ran away from home to work, first as ship's boy, then as doryman on the Grand Banks. He commanded his first ship at age 19 and quickly established a reputation as a first class seaman.

He sailed round the world in 1937 and served as navigator in the 1938 Fisherman's Cup races. These races took place in the full glare of the press and his photo in the Boston Post led firstly to modeling opportunities then to discussions with Paramount Studios. He signed a seven-year contract with Paramount in 1941.

Hollywood 1941

He had time to appear in just two films, 'Virginia' and 'Bahama Passage' in 1941, before abandoning Hollywood to join the United States Marine Corps as a private, under the name John Hamilton, an alias he never otherwise used

World War II 1942

Sterling had an active and successful war. Whilst training, his obvious abilities stood out and he was recommended for Officer Candidate School. He was commissioned a second lieutenant and was transferred to serve as an undercover agent with the department which became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Using his marine training and seamanship skills, Sterling operated a fishing boat off the Yugoslavian coast to pick up downed Allied pilots as well as running guns and supplies to Yugoslav partisans through the German blockade of the Adriatic.

He was made a captain early in 1945 and left active duty in December of that year. He received the Silver Star for gallantry in action and President Tito awarded him the Order of Merit.

Hollywood 1947

After a short break, Hayden returned to Hollywood and to Paramount and appeared in an aviation film, 'Blaze of Noon' in 1947 followed by 'El Paso' and 'Manhandled' in 1949. There followed many action films, Westerns and Films Noir during the 1950s, including 'Hellgate' in 1952, 'The Eternal Sea' in 1955 ' and 'The Iron Sheriff' in 1957. The movies made Sterling a rich man but were low budget and not particularly noteworthy except 'Johnny Guitar' in 1954 in which he played the title role and co-starred with Joan Crawford.

Later Career

From 1953 to 1982, Sterling worked frequently on the new medium of television, appearing on shows such as Wagon Train, General Electric Theater, Schlitz Playhouse, Playhouse 90, Goodyear Theatre, and The DuPont Show of the Month.

Sterling's later movie career rapidly slowed down after a 1959 custody battle with his second wife which caused him to defy a court order and flee Hollywood, sailing with his 4 children to the South Seas.

He returned to Hollywood with his leading man days behind him, and now concentrating on character acting. His best known performance at this time was as General Jack D. Ripper in 1964 in 'Dr. Strangelove' for which he was BAFTA nominated as "Best Foreign Actor". He appeared in other notable films including 'The Godfather' in 1972, 'The Long Goodbye' the following year, and 'Nine to Five' in 1980.


Sterling was married five times to three different women.

Madeleine Carroll, 1942–1946.In 1941, she starred opposite Sterling in 'Virginia'. The following year they married, divorcing in 1946.

Betty Ann de Noon, 1947–1958. They had four children, Christian, Dana, Gretchen and Matthew. The couple married and divorced three times, with the final divorce in 1955.

After their divorce there was a bitter custody battle over their children, which was resolved when Hayden was granted custody. Hayden then took his children sailing to Tahiti in spite of a court order.

Catherine Devine McConnell, 1960–1986. They had two children, Andrew and David, the marriage ending with Sterling's death.

He often expressed his dislike for acting, stating that he only acted to pay for his sailing. He wrote two books: an autobiography, "Wanderer" in 1962, and a novel, "Voyage" in 1976. Both were critical and commercial successes.

During the war Sterling developed a huge admiration for the Communist partisans he had fought alongside. This led him into a brief membership of the Communist Party from 1946. As the Red Scare intensified in the U.S., he confessed his brief Communist ties to the House Un-American Activities Committee, a decision he would ever after regret, considering himself a "supergrass".

Sterling Hayden died of prostate cancer on May 23, 1986 in Sausalito, California, aged 70.

Sterling Hayden Academy Awards

No Nominations

Sterling Hayden Filmography

Virginia (as Stirling Hayden)
Bahama Passage (as Stirling Hayden)
Blaze of Noon
Variety Girl
El Paso
Journey into Light
The Star
Flaming Feather
Denver and Rio Grande
The Golden Hawk
Flat Top
Fighter Attack
So Big
Take Me to Town
Kansas Pacific
Johnny Guitar
Prince Valiant
Naked Alibi
Crime Wave
Arrow in the Dust
Battle Taxi
Top Gun
The Eternal Sea
The Last Command
The Killing
The Come On
Crime of Passion
Zero Hour!
5 Steps to Danger
Gun Battle at Monterey
The Iron Sheriff
Ten Days to Tulara
Terror in a Texas Town