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Former OSS Agent, Sea Captain : Actor Sterling Hayden Dies at 70

May 24, 1986|TED THACKREY JR. | Times Staff Writer

Maverick actor Sterling Hayden, the one-time Hollywood leading man whose restlessness led him through careers as a sea captain, OSS agent and gun-runner to ultimate success as an author and respected character actor, died Friday at his home in Sausalito.

Hayden, 70, had been undergoing treatment for cancer for several months.

"It was a quiet passing," said his son-in-law, George Ruckert. "He more or less went in his sleep."

In addition to his wife, Catherine, who was with him at the time of his death, Hayden leaves a daughter and five sons.

Funeral services will be private, and the family asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Hospice of Marin of San Rafael.

News of Hayden's long illness had generally been kept quiet; thus his death became a sudden end to a vivid story.

Actor, author and adventurer, Hayden's life--even toned down and examined in his autobiography--seemed almost the stuff of fable; a Hollywood publicity writer's dream run amok.

"He was always somehow larger than life," Howard Skiles wrote in a profile published a decade ago. "Here was this handsome-as-hell youngster and he becomes a movie star overnight and then the war comes along and he goes into the Marine Corps and gets a medal for derring-do with the Office of Strategic Services, and then he comes home and makes more pictures and kidnaps his kids and sails away to the South Seas and writes a best seller and--Jesus!--you name it.

"You just couldn't imagine all that strength and energy failing to do anything it set out to do. He was like a force of nature; an element.

"That he could also act--really act; bring a true character to life on the screen--was sort of like putting a few stray diamonds on top of a solid-gold Cadillac. . . . "

But Hayden never believed it.

"When I was a kid and getting paid to stand in front of a camera," he told an interviewer in 1972, "I used to spend a lot of my time just laughing inside about the whole thing. It wasn't real to me. I couldn't act and I damn well knew it. I kept expecting someone to see the joke and call the whole thing off at any moment.

"When they didn't, I was flabbergasted.

"Look, it wasn't modesty or anything like that. I brag like hell when I'm confident of what I'm doing. Back when I was sailing ships for a living, I would take a schooner up to San Francisco--I had my master's certificate at 22--and I would tell myself, 'There isn't a man in the world can do this better 'n I can.' And I meant it.

"But, acting? I spent half my time being amazed and the other half being embarrassed. . . ."

Yet he continued to act--and to gain stature as an actor--throughout his life.

Sterling Relyea Walter was born March 26, 1916, in Montclair, N.J., and the first few years of his life seemed to aim him in a far different direction than the one he finally took. His father was a successful advertising salesman. The family home was large and comfortable. Life was safe and secure.

Spotty Education

But comfort and safety disappeared when he was 9 years old. That was the year his father died. His mother remarried and the new father-figure was a pleasant-enough character who lived on borrowed money and moved the family frequently to avoid creditors.

Sterling, who took his stepfather's surname of Hayden, acquired a somewhat spotty education in a series of public and private schools, and finally dropped out altogether when he was 16.

"I ran away to sea," he said. "I know that only happens in fiction. But it's what I did. I had been hanging around in public libraries, reading sea stories by Melville, Stevenson, Villers, Dana and London. Finally, I just decided the hell with it.

"I found a berth as an ordinary seaman in the schooner Puritan bound from New London to San Pedro--and away I went. . . ."

During the next few years, he was almost constantly at sea in fishing vessels and sailing ships: At 20, he was first mate of the schooner Yankee on a voyage around the world; the following year he was navigator on the Gertrude Thebaud during her historic schooner races with the Bluenose, and at 22 he had his first command--master of the Florence C. Robinson, and youngest man on board, during a voyage to Tahiti.

"I was in heaven," he recalled. "I thought it would go on that way forever. . . . "

Screen Test Offers

But changes were already in the wind. Newspaper accounts of the Robinson's voyage described the young, 6-foot, 4-inch skipper as "a blond adonis," and photographs confirmed the words. Two film studios made tentative screen test offers.

"I just laughed it off at the time," Hayden said. "But a year or so later, when I had finally managed to buy my own ship only to see her irreparably damaged on her first voyage, a few months in Hollywood seemed like a quick and easy way to get enough dough to buy another one."

A New York screen test led to a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures, and he found himself playing the second lead in "Virginia," with Madeline Carroll and Fred MacMurray.

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