Talking With Sterling Hayden
As an adventurous youth, Sterling Hayden went down to the New England sea like Moby Dick's Ishmael, and he survived his years on the ocean to surface in Hollywod as an actor specializing in idiosyncratic, slightly schizoid roles in inevitably interesting, off-beat movies. His studio years were marred by a disgraceful naming-of-Communists for the benefit of the FBI and HUAC. But Hayden later came in from the cold by denouncing his own testimony and speaking up at free-speech student demonstration.
Hayden is most famous as General Jack D. Ripper, the nuke-crazy nemesis in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. Among film cultists, he is admired as the fall-guy country bunkin' in John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle, the titular brooding cowpoke of Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, the suicidal novelist, Wade, in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, the nasty cop-on-the-take in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, the peasant patriarch in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900. Still, Hayden always was more interested in other things than acting in movies: sailing, of course, but also writing, a well-regarded autobiography, Wanderer, and a Thomas Wolfe-size novel, Voyage.
Over the years, Hayden transformed from dashing Ishmael into a grizzled, hard-drinking, still-handsome Ahab, shuttling between connubial life in a Connecticut suburb, time on a barge in Europe (tied up anywhere between Holland and Marseilles), and a small apartment in Sausalito, California. At the time of this 1984 Boston interview, Hayden, off the booze at 66, had styled his giants-of-the-Earth appearance to include locks in the oceanic image of Neptune, those coupled with an Old Testament pariarch beard.
Instead of drinking? "I was busted in Toronto by the Royal Mounted Police," Hayden said. "I had 3 1/2 ounces of Lebanese hashish in my pocket." The judge ruled: no fine, no probation, because Hayden had been arrested only twice in his life, and that was in civil rights demonstrations.
The magistrate explained his ruling: "The judgment is unusual because this is an unusual man."
Q- As you showed in your autobiography, Wanderer, your dues as a Hollywood actor came by way of the sea.
A- Ships took over when I was about 12, as if somebody pulled a switch. They gave me something we all need sometime, an obsession. I'd usually trolley into Boston from my mother's apartment in Cambridge and spend the whole day at the waterfront. Later on, I signed on fishing vessels for no pay. Because fishermen are generous, they'd give me ten bucks or so for a one-day trip catching cod and haddock.
Q- Weren't you actually discovered by Hollywood as a result of a 1938 fisherman's race at Gloucester, Massachusetts?
A- These races were a kind of glory time, when working men played. There were girls in Coast Guard cutters, and newspapermen too. One morning, I walked across between the masts to show off, ostensibly to get a match for a cigarette for my partner, Jack. I was aware of the cameras. When I got to the dock somebody took a picture, and the next morning it was in the Boston Traveler, now defunct.
Beneath it said, "Gloucester Sailor Like Movie Idol." I got my first command after that, taking a ship to Tahiti, and then I worked a summer in Maine on a yacht as a captain, and then I swung a deal to work for the Kaiser Wilhelm in his 160-foot schooner. We lost her off Cape Hatteras, so I was back in Boston by Long Wharf, where the newspapermen hung out.
A friend, Tom, from the AP, said, "Why don't you go to Hollywood?" He dictated a letter to the wife of an agent, Bill Hawks. I went down to New York and was working as a stevedore on the docks in Brooklyn when I got a note at my rooming house saying, "Paramount Pictures would like you to call." A week later, I made a test in New York with Jeanne Cagney, James's little sister. I was completely lost, ignorant, nervous. Paramount made me a seven-year-contract offer beginning at $250 a week, which was astronomical.
I got my lovely old mother and bought a car and we drove to California. I found her a little house for $75 a month in Laurel Canyon. She was shy and lonely and hurt because I was gone all the time.
Q- How was life at Paramount?
A- Paramount assigned me a dramatic coach and a wrestler to keep me in shape, which amused me, because he was really there to keep me from stealing out late and running around. He had a girl who was Madeleine Carroll's hairdresser. I was starting to keep company with Madeleine, and the four of us would mess around together.
After two weeks, I was called into the office of Paramount director Edward H. Griffith, who said, "I'm going to star someone with no experience in the most expensive Technicolor picture ever made on location." That was Virginia, with Madeleine Carroll, which was shot in Charlottesville in 1940.
I was so lost then I don't think I tried to analyze it. I said, "This is nuts but, damned, it's pleasant." I had only one plan in mind: to get $5,000. I knew where there was a schooner, and then I'd haul away. But then the War intervened.
Madeleine was in love, prior to meeting me, with a delightful man who was ferrying bombers to England by way of Newfoundland and Iceland. He came on the set one day and he looked like Gary Cooper, a mature, fine-looking man, and I was just a kid. I thought, "Jiminy Cricket, if I'm going to win the hand of this lady, I'd better get off to the War."
Q- In Wanderer, you describe your days in Italy helping Tito's partisans. What do you think of Tito, who would later lead the Communist government of Yugoslavia?
A- He's not my enemy ever. No way. I went to his funeral in Yugoslavia for Rolling Stone, though I never wrote a story. I wanted somehow to say goodbye to an old friend.
Q- After the War, you joined in Hollywood the Communist Party?
A- Yes, they put me in what was called "a backlot group," though Ronald Reagan would call it a "cell." I decided right away it wasn't for me. I remember the first meeting I went to, they said the next meeting was Tuesday night at 7:30.
My first thought was, "Fuck the Revolution, what about my date with Charlene?"
I wasn't committed. Also, I couldn't read dialectic and historical materialism, though I tried. I heard that John Garfield was "in" too. I never knew. I didn't see any other actors of so-called "name value." By the Korean War, I'd drifted out after four months.
I went to my lawyer, a big wheel, and he said he'd call J. Edgar Hoover personally. And Hoover said the only thing for this young man to do is go down to the FBI and make a clean breast of the whole thing. I went to the FBI after a great deal of travail which I don't need to lay on you.
Q- Why did you decide to cooperate with the FBI and be a "Friendly Witness" before HUA?
A- If I have any excuse, and it's not a good reason, the FBI made it clear to me that if I became an "Unfriendly Witness" I could damn well forget the custody of my children. I didn't want to go to jail, that was the other thing. The FBI office promised that my testimony was confidential. And they were very pleasant. So I spilled my guts out, and the months went by, and I was on some shit-ass picture, and I got a subpoena. The next thing I knew I was flying to Washington to testify. The worst day of my life. They knew it already, and there is the savage irony.
Q- Are you the only show business person who, consequently, took back his testimony? Who recanted for cooperating with HUAC?
A- I understand that several others have made some gesture, but none was more blatant. I castigated myself the way any proper person should.
Q- Did you ever run across Ronald Reagan during that period?
A- I met him at a meeting of the Committee for the First Amendment, which was formed by Bogart and "Betty" Bacall and Ira Gershwin and Judy Garland and James Mason and Danny Kaye and John Huston. I was asked to chair a fundraising meeting at Ida Lupino's house. Unannounced, in walked Reagan to present his side. He was enormously effective. He just took over. He was obsessed. Of course, he was locked into the producers' position, the conservative position. I think I described him in Wanderer as a one-man battalion, and I believe he sent me a cable congratulating me on being a good American when my testimony hit the fan.
Q- What happened to your career after your HUAC testimony?
A- I wasn't seeing my old left-wing friends. The head of Paramount said, "I'm proud of you and I'm going to be the first to offer you a job." I went off and did a picture in 1952 called "The Denver and Rio Grande" shot somewhere in Arizona or Colorado, and then I began to work on a very low level of "B" pictures as often as I felt like it. I sank down into a morass.
John Huston had come along earlier with The Asphalt Jungle, and that was the only really good picture I was involved with in any way. I'm not as stupid as I might imply. I realized the golden opportunity of working with the caliber of Huston, who realized that a hoodlum I played is not as simple as one might think. He's not just a rough guy, maybe he's fouled up. Many years later, I met Bernardo Bertolucci in Beverly Hills and he cast me as the Italian peasant father in 1900. I asked, "Why me?" and he said, "When I was a young man, The Asphalt Jungle captured my fancy." I said, "Bless you."
Q- Could you talk about filming The Asphalt Jungle's powerful ending, where you've been shot in the stomach and crawl into a pasture filled with horses and die?
A- I remember it well. We were in Charlottesville, Virginia, bluegrass and thoroughbred country, and John is a horseman but he's also a bit reckless. He asked me to lie down in the field. All the local experts said, "Oh no, not with thoroughbred colts." But it was Huston, so I figured that with anyone I respect I'll do any goddamned thing. I went out and lay down. I do remember one colt just clinked my knee and as he went over me, I thought, "That could have been my ear, or my head." That's Huston at work, that lovely guy!
Q- Some film experts think your best picture was Johnny Guitar, a thinly disguised attack on McCarthyism. Do you agree?
A- I don't even know what Johnny Guitar was about, and making it was an extremely difficult time for me. I was at war with my then wife in the evenings and with Joan Crawford in the days. Joan was making hell for everyone on location, plus I was trying to play Johnny Guitar and I can't play guitar and I can't sing. They put twine on the guitar so, in case I hit it, it wouldn't go "plunk."
I've become acclimatized to Johnny Guitar's popularity. It's a big cult film in France, but nobody in this country has heard of it. But I don't think I've seen it. I don't go to films much, mine or anyone's. I went to a little film forum one night in Paris when I lived on the barge. They asked me if I'd say a few words about Johnny Guitar. When I said I didn't know what it was about, they thought I was putting them on.
Q- Could you talk about working on life TV on Playhouse 90, starring as a prisoner freed to rescue flood victims in a version of William Faulkner's The Old Man?
A- There were 200 tons of water at CBS. They had to build a tank and shore it up. They put these 12 X 12 timbers under it. I remember I went down a river to find someone on a roof.
I returned and said, "I never did find that bastard on a rooftop."
I'd done one Playhouse 90 before with John Frankenheimer. He was the Huston of live TV, just out of Yale, 26, and he was hot. I did a thing with him based on Farenheit 451 but under another name, Robert Allen Arthur was the writer and he was sued by Ray Bradbury. He called it Sound of a Different Drummer, the old Thoreau quote. I'd never done more than six pages at a track and there I was with 127 pages and I was terrified.
I remember the first day of rehearsal someone said, "There are two things you should know about Frankenheimer: (l) You won't see your wife for the next three weeks, and (2) There are at least three set-up shots you'll never get to until you are on the air." Frankenheimer loved to move the camera so fast. Christ, it was wild. I was so scared, but I roared through that goddamned thing.
Q- And the night that you finally performed on live TV?
A- At the end, when I was almost home, I started to blow a line, but it came to me in the nick of time. I went into one set to do a scene and there were no cameras! Then around the corner, like an old San Francisco fire truck, comes the camera on a dolly. And a guy comes along, puts up a light, and BANG, we go. The program got very good notices, and me too, among my first good notices.
Q- You worked twice with Stanley Kubrick, on his early "film noir," The Killing, and also as General Jack D. Ripper in Dr.Strangelove. What were your impressions?
A- When Kubrick came to town for The Killing, all thought he was nuts. My agent said, "There's some guy who is supposed to be a genius and he's got a script that none of us can understand. But they're going to bankroll him, so why don't you go over and talk?" Kubrick was then quite icy, quite mechanical. He was battling everybody in telling his story from five points of view like Rashomon. But when I saw Kubrick's camera move the way it did, I thought, "This is different." It reminded me of the speed of live TV drama.
By the time of Dr.Strangelove, Kubrick had authority and he was very mellow. He fraternized with me. He said, "Why don't we go over to Peter Sellers's and let Peter ad lib a bit?" On a Sunday, we went to Sellers's place, where there was a whole wall of electronic equipment. I saw the film a couple of months ago, and half the lines came out on that terrace. They taped everything.
I had a terrible time the first day in front of the camera. I lost control and went 48 takes working with a cigar, chewing on a cigar, blowing my lines, and sweating. Finally, I couldn't take it and went up to Stanley and apologized. I said, "I'm sorry." He said the most beautiful thing: "Don't be sorry. The terror on your face might just give us the quality we need. (He said, "Us.") If it doesn't work out, come back in six or eight weeks, and we'll do the scenes then. Don't worry about it."
I went back to my room with my wife, Kitty, got a little drunk that night, and had no more problem.
Q- Except, that is, for your drinking, your many decades as an alcoholic. How did it start?
A- I began drinking in Gloucester during the fisherman's races. I just thought it was the American thing, "I'm a heavy drinker." I didn't feel macho about it. I loved drinking, and I still do. My joint in Sausalita is full of bottles right now for my friends. I often talk to the bottles at night and thank them. I say, "God bless you!" because they gave me some of the most glorious nights of my life. My books, Wanderer and Voyage, were written in the alcoholic style of life.
Q- How did you get involved with such non-movies as Gas (1981) and Venom (1982)
A- I made Gas in Toronto, a Gas nobody ever heard of. It was one of those "interfinanced" things, Canadian money and all. Donald Sutherland was in it. That's why I did it. If I see someone's name in the cast whom I respect, I say, "OK, it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me."
Venom? Vermin! The producer was a senior-grade asshole. I'm going to nail that bastard when I write about it. I used to spout Thoreau about, "If you are doing anything for money, you are going down. If you are doing anything only for money, you are going down perpendicularily.
So I found myself in London town on a five-week deal, $50,000 a week for no reason. The movie was with Klaus Kinski, Oliver Reed, Sarah Miles. I was playing someone who was an absolute zero, a nothing, a fucked-up heir with a wealthy wife. He lead a photographic safari to Africa. Christ!
One night in my hotel room I started to write a book at three in the morning, an autobiography. It felt great, and I'd been dry for three or four months. I was going to seal this deal with a couple of shots. I had two double shots. Well, you know the rest. I just kept on slowly drinking.
On the third day, I told the director, "I'm too drunk to work." I shook hands with the cinematographer, I shook hands with Kinski, and split and went back to my hotel room. The producer withheld $180,000 and I sued the bastard, and they settled out of court for 50%.
Q- And when you see someone drinking now, after two dry years?
A- Unless someone's an alcoholic, I have a feeling of envy. It's a tough thing. It makes combat look like going down an elevator. But a doctor said to my wife, Kitty, "If Sterling doesn't drink, he won't reactivate his addiction." I like that.
Kitty bought a house in Wilton, Connecticut, in 1968. I don't care for pure suburbia but I care for Kitty, so that's been my base. Wilton was a refuge, a place I could crash. Even when I wasn't drinking, I would plunge into depression and just lie there, day after day, week after week, reading The New York Times. Big deal.
Now I spend three or four months living on my barge in Europe, and that's where my romantic heart is. The function of Gloucester in my youth has been supplanted by my place in Sausalita, which to me is the gem in the crown of the United States of America.
Q- Why have you been in so many movies?
A- I think a good many directors chose me - I've had ample time to analyze it-- because I'm malleable. So many actors who are good are set, are they not? With me, they wanted to see how much they could do with how little. When I've come into town to talk with a director, I've said, "Who did you really want?" I can tell what's true by their reaction to that question. A lot will fluff it and say, "Well, we wanted you." I know damn well they didn't want me. They wanted the biggest name they could find, whether it was Anthony Quinn or John Wayne.
Q- Are you recognized on the street?
A- People do a double-take. They know vaguely that the sea is involved, and that in some way being a bit of an outsider is involved, and film is involved, and that's enough to make them smile. We stop and bullshit, and have a few laughs, and keep going. It's marvelous. I like to fraternize with people, and it opens doors fast when you walk into hotels or try to get an airline ticket. But I don't just mean it selfishly, because I like it when you are clowning around with people and they decide you are not so bad.
Q- What acting are you doing now?
A- I was going to Arizona to play a sheriff in a picture with Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams. Then I said to Kitty, "Why? I've been there before." I'd like to play somebody close to myself as a man, something that would be like the way I feel about writing. From time to time, King Lear has been mentioned.