By all accounts Sterling seems to have hated acting, doing it to pick up a paycheck here and there, but harboring great personal contempt for the profession. He would rather have been out adventuring. Still, despite this fact, Sterling Hayden has left an indelible mark on our cinematic past, turning in a slew of standout performances in what have come to be heralded as some of America’s finest films. And yes, OK, I can already hear you giving me sh*t for not including Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) on my list. Duly noted.
Hayden’s dogged, straighter-than-an-arrow Dt. Lt. Sims helped inspire the character of Bud White in James Ellroy’s masterpiece crime novel, L.A. Confidential. Admittedly it’s a bit of a stiff performance, but Hayden chews the scenery with near reckless abandon, delivering his lines with the ferocity of a pit bull and speed of a Tommy Gun, which makes for great pulp noir viewing. A must for fans of the genre!
dir. John Houston
Dix Handley serves as “the muscle” component in Doc Riedenschneider’s (Oscar® nominee Sam Jaffe) ragtag group of doomed thieves. Dix is a good ole country boy gone rotten, suffocating on the fumes and oppression of the big city, taken to a life of petty crime, eking out his living on the fringes trying to earn enough dough to buy back his family’s farm. Hayden plays him with a cool front of down-to-business stoicism and just-under-the-surface vulnerability; his most tragic role.
Hayden anchors Kubrick’s precision clockwork caper film as Johnny Clay, mastermind of a breathless race track heist and a desperate pawn caught by the rip currents of fate in its unraveling aftermath.
dir. Francis Ford Coppola
In what amounts to little more than an extended cameo, Hayden doles out a memorable bit of gruff masculinity with his deeply corrupt McCluskey, the New York City police Captain in Sollozzo’s pocket. After breaking Michael Corleone’s jaw, Sterling graciously takes one in the neck and one in the forehead in the most famous scene from one of the most famous and beloved movies in American film history.
Hayden, bearded and bloated, growls, barks and boozes his way through Altman’s hazy L.A. noir (adapted from the Raymond Chandler novel) as Hemmingway-esque author, Roger Wade. He’s a hollowed out giant at the end of his rope whose trophy wife (played as a sultry, slightly hippie, blonde beach chic by Nina Van Pallandt) just may be the film’s femme fatale. I love the way Wade, even after being corrected several times, affectionately refers to Elliot Gould’s mostly clueless private dick, Philip Marlowe, as the Marlboro man. It’s a glorious grand-standing performance, but one that’s filled with heart, soul and deep empathy for the character’s painfully careening out of control desperation. It might be Sterling Hayden’s finest hour – he’s certainly all-in.