Skip to main content

Sterling Hayden’s life encompassed many important events and periods of the 20th century.  A lifelong seaman he joined the Marine Corps and the OSS during World War 2, running smuggling operations to support anti-fascist partisans in Yugoslavia.  He was also a movie star, famously appearing in The Godfather and in two Stanley Kubrick films – The Killing and Dr Strangelove.  In this episode we take a look at the life and times of this fascinating man – from his time as a secret agent to testifying before anti-Communist congressional hearings to his relationship with Kubrick – and how his life has been referenced and reflected in movies.


Sterling Walter Hayden is one of the most interesting men of the 20th century, though not many will recall the name. He was a Hollywood actor, who you may remember from The Godfather where he played Captain McCluskey, the police chief, though his most well-known role (at least among the sort of people who listen to this podcast) is as Jack D Ripper in Dr Strangelove. We will come back to that later so keep it in mind.

What makes him more interesting than your average movie star is that Hayden was also a Marine Corps officer and a secret agent for the OSS. He also became embroiled in the post-war Red Scare because he briefly joined the Communist Party, and testified at the House Committee on Un-American Activities. So in this episode we’re going to take a look at the life and times of Sterling Hayden to try to learn a bit more about Hollywood, World War 2 and the early Cold War. This is going to be the first in a mini-series looking at the more secret and political side of Hollywood, and how that ties in with censorship and the intelligence agencies. The next two episodes will be on the two long-serving heads of the MPAA – Eric Johnston and Jack Valenti and there will be two more following that looking at censorship and film violence.

But let’s get back to Sterling Hayden. He was born in New Jersey in 1916 and was adopted after his father died when he was 9 years old. He spent the rest of his formative years growing up in coastal towns in New England, where he developed his lifelong passion for boats and sailing. He left school at 16 to become a mate on a ship, and spend the next decade travelling around working in various jobs that all involved boats and seamanship. Hayden was nearly two metres tall and despite his rather stern expression was handsome in a striking sort of way so it’s unsurprising that he became a model and then an actor in his 20s. He starred in a couple of films during the beginning of World War 2, and then signed up for military and intelligence work.

This is where things get a little complicated. According to most biographies he first joined the Marine Corps and was then recruited into the OSS. However, his OSS personnel file, released a few years ago by the US national archives, shows that he joined the OSS first and was sent to Britain for Special Operations training, including parachuting. He then spent a time in the Marine Corps before re-joining the OSS in 1943. This is odd not just for the contradiction in the timelines but also because when he joined the Marine Corps he did so under the pseudonym John Hamilton – a name that he did not use during any other period of his life. Perhaps he did this to avoid the added attention from being a movie actor, but at that stage his film career was relatively minimal. So why did this OSS man who had trained in special ops adopt a fake name when he joined the Marines? I don’t know the answer but it hints that he was more involved with the OSS and certainly from an earlier point that most versions of his story acknowledge.

Sterling Hayden’s OSS file is full of positive reviews and comments, lauding his bravery and skill with boats, and one report even says he had a reckless disregard for his own life. At one point during his missions in Europe his boat sank, but he swam ashore and returned to base, undeterred. So along with being a mountain of a man with quite a range of experiences and abilities he was also a formidable character, not one to mess with. The file includes a 15 page narrative written by Hayden himself that outlines his wartime experiences. It’s a mini-diary, like a very abbreviated version of Roald Dahl’s Going Solo, which covers his time in the British Air Force during the war but curiously avoids mentioning his intelligence work.

Sterling Hayden in WW2

So what did Hayden get up to in the second World War? According to this narrative he joined the OSS in October 1941 and was sent by Bill Donovan to Britain for special training by ‘Scottish Commandos’. He broke his ankle during one of the parachute jumps and so he left the OSS and returned to civilian life. A year later in October ’42 he joined the Marine Corps but they wanted to send him to the headquarters base at Quantico, which meant spending the next two years inside the United States. Hayden wanted more so he applied to re-join the OSS and after they carried out their usual background checks they signed him up. He was supposed to go Cairo to then enter Greece as a liaison with local groups resisting the fascists, but this didn’t end up happening. Hayden spent some time travelling round the Middle East looking for other operatives to work with him, but then his orders were ‘cut’ and he went back to the US.

The OSS then sent him to Cairo where nothing seemed to be happening, so he transferred to Bari in Italy where a smuggling operation had been set up to provide food, weapons and other support to partisans fighting in Yugoslavia. After various delays he arrived in Bari and started helping to load and organise the ships. Sterling comments, ‘This was the first time since joining OSS that I was associated with men who were actually doing a job’. Despite this, Hayden and the men he was working with were hampered by the British Navy and by their own commanders. Sterling accused some officers of ‘doing everything they could to hamper the operation’.

The British Navy then shut down the base in Bari, so Sterling and the rest moved down the coast to the town of Monopoli. One again the Navy were obstructive but Hayden and the others persisted in re-establishing the smuggling. For unknown reasons the only American officer in the Yugoslav islands was called away to Cairo, so Hayden himself went into Yugoslavia and ended up liaising directly with the partisans, some of whom were Communists. He saw a bit of action, in one incident the jeep he was travelling in was ambushed and the driver was shot but they fought their way out. So he was very much a real life James Bond – a secret agent acting somewhat independently to carry out covert missions.

However, he had much more of a heart than James Bond. Hayden writes of the island of Vis off the coast of Croatia where several thousand refugees were living in poverty. He tried to get them moved to Bari but once again the British military and bureaucracy were slow and obstructive. He went back to Bari but found the leaders there were solely occupied with arguing over who was in charge, and therefore they were no help at all. The men then got together and confronted their commanding officer, Major Koch, who Hayden constantly criticises throughout the narrative. This caused Koch to break up the team of men who were working so effectively, and he sent most of them to other posts, thus ruining the operation.

I’ll leave it to you to read the rest of the narrative but you get the idea – he spent much of the war helping to arm and equip partisans who were actively fighting the fascists in Yugoslavia, often floating around the Adriatic on unarmed ships. While I dislike the way every depicition of World War 2 talks about how brave the allies were, in Sterling Hayden’s case it was true. His superiors, however, seem to have been a bunch of incompetent cowards.

Sterling Hayden returns to Hollywood

We will pause here because after the war he returned to Hollywood and a different chapter begins. But before we get into that I do want to highlight the fact that this whole story of Sterling Hayden running missions in WW2 is briefly referred to in Three Days of the Condor, when two CIA men are discussing their careers.

I’m not quite sure why that is in there – Hayden had written an autobiography in the 1960s so none of this was secret – but it’s a nice way to bring us back into the world of films, where Hayden would spend the rest of his career. I should say that he was never all that comfortable being an actor, he never especially enjoyed that line of work and it seems it was mostly just a way for him to buy more boats and spend lots of time sailing. Perhaps that sense of being able to escape is important to a man whose father died when he was a boy, or perhaps it was a feeling of control he was seeking.

In part due to his fellowship with the Communist partisans in Yugoslavia, Hayden joined the Communist Party of the USA in 1946. This was only brief, but it was enough to bring him to the attention of the FBI and HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Hayden even testified at HUAC in April 1951, naming names of other Communists in the motion picture industry. He later regretted this enormously, saying that friends of his had been blacklisted and deprived of their livelihoods as a result of his testimony.

Indeed, it seems that Sterling’s psychiatrist Ernest Phillip Cohen was working with the FBI and HUAC, and convinced several of his patients to testify. Hayden identified this in his autobiography Wanderer, recalling a conversation he had with Cohen saying, ‘Son of a bitch, Doc, I’m not sure I can take much more of this…. I’ll make no bones about it, I’m thinking of quitting analysis…. I’ll say this, too, that if it hadn’t been for you I wouldn’t have turned into a stoolie for J. Edgar Hoover. I don’t think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing…. F – – it! And f – – you too. ‘

So I went looking in several FBI files from this period for references to Sterling Hayden to try to learn a bit more about the context here. As some of you will know from the episode I did on the Hollywood Ten or our discussion of the film Good Night and Good Luck I have proposed the theory that the Red Scare was largely fuelled by the FBI, in part due to their turf war with the nascent CIA. Two out of the three OSS-assisted films that were made just after the war were listed as Communist motion pictures in the FBI’s file. Some of the Hollywood Ten, the first to be blacklisted, worked on these films. Other former OSS figures such as Marlene Dietrich were targeted by the FBI. So the fact Sterling Hayden got mixed up in this is part of a larger pattern.

I found a few random references to Hayden being involved with certain Hollywood organisations, and to informants telling the Bureau that he had tried to indoctrinate the daughter of a prominent DC family. According to another informant a close friend of Hayden, Warrick Thomkins, was worried about him being called to testify before HUAC because he might ‘break’ and give up information that would ‘hang us all’ including ‘a lot of high government officials’. Of course, when he did actually testify this did not have catatrophic consequences so this report appears, on reflection, a bit paranoid.

Another FBI report mentions Hayden’s name among a number of stars who went to DC in 1947 to protest against HUAC and their methods. Other names included Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Ira Gershwin and John Huston. Some of these people ended up being called before HUAC to answer accusations, or were investigated by the FBI. When, several years later, Hayden testified as a co-operative witness the Bureau files recorded this. All these references come from the overall FBI file on Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry, but I went looking in a few other files from this period to see what I could see. I found a brief mention in the file on entertainer Danny Kaye of a radio program that Hayden appeared on as part of this 1947 protest where he pointed out that the issue wasn’t about Communism but was about the right of Americans to think as they choose.

There is also a strange reference in the file on the adaptations of I Was A Communist for the FBI, based on the story of FBI spy Matt Cvetic. In April 1951, literally a week or so after Hayden has testified before HUAC, a memo records how someone who worked for the Robert Orr advertising agency approached the FBI’s LA field office. He had a script for the following week’s Louella Parsons show which included an interview with Cvetic where he spoke of ‘Hollywood protecting [redacted] and Sterling Hayden and of Communist retaliation against witness who divulge Communist programs and activities and then states “in the FBI we know witnesses… who were disposed of”.’

I kept looking and I’m glad I did because the file on Ronald Reagan – who was an FBI informant around this time – contains one very funny memo completely at odds with Cvetic’s claims. It seems Hayden was briefly part of a Communist cell in Hollywood, but they achieved pretty much nothing due to resistance from anti-Communists including Ronald Reagan. A month after Hayden’s testimony at HUAC Reagan’s file records how, ‘During his testimony before House Committee on un-American Activities on 4-10-51, (reported by highly confidential source) the confessed Communist Sterling Hayden referred to his Hollywood cell activities in the movie industry during 1946. He said his group made no progress because of the Board of Directors of the Guild and referred to Reagan “who was a one-man battalion against this thing” (presumably against Communism.)’

This means that the FBI had spies within even the closed sessions of HUAC, but this particularly amused me because it reminded me of a scene in Hail Caesar!, the most recent Coen brothers film which is set in post-war Hollywood. In it the Hollywood Ten kidnap George Clooney and convert him to Communism and in one scene they talk about their efforts to influence movie scripts during this period. The whole thing is not only a great pastiche of Hollywood communists but also of the FBI’s paranoia about them.

Sterling Hayden and Stanley Kubrick

As Hayden’s movie career progressed he appeared in a number of Westerns including one called Top Gun, and some noir films too. It seems this was the reason he was cast in The Killing, the first big Stanley Kubrick feature film. For those of you who don’t know this film – it involves a heist at a racetrack that goes badly wrong, and has this odd non-linear structure a bit like Pulp Fiction. It’s a really good thriller, and Hayden is great as the head of the criminal gang who put the heist together.

Many years later Hayden gave an interview where he talked about this and his role in Dr Strangelove as and it gives a good sense of what kind of man he was and his attitude towards being a movie star.

I think these excerpts from the interview tell us quite a bit about Sterling – he was a little unhinged, a little bit mad, certainly eccentric. He was a natural actor – even just speaking off the top of his head he sounds like he’s delivering a speech to an audience. He didn’t like acting or think much of it as a job, and didn’t seem to take it particularly seriously. All of which makes him even more interesting as a person so I hope this helps you understand why I find this guy so fascinating. He’s weird, and lived a weird life, and wasn’t anything even approaching your usual Hollywood star or Marine Corps officer.

Which brings us onto Jack D Ripper and Dr Strangelove, which is another example of Kubrick’s odd casting choices. Ripper is an Air Force general who is so paranoid about Communists he believes they have poisoned the water supply and so he drinks rainwater to preserve his precious bodily fluids. It is odd that a man who was briefly a Communist and even testified to that fact was then cast as one of the most infamous anti-Communist characters ever seen in cinema. I can only assume Kubrick was aware of this irony and perhaps was even playing on it in scenes like this:

The notion of a mass Communist conspiracy infiltrating all levels of American society was what fuelled the HUAC hearings and then McCarthyism, both of which were quite destructive to individualist ideals in the US. Ironically, in trying to counter the influence or perceived influence of a collectivist philosophy they attacked and damaged the very thing they believed they were upholding. The idea of taking someone who was both a victim of that and, briefly, a lackey for it and making him into some insane, McCarthyist extremist who puts the US on a course of action that is ultimately self-destructive – I think that is quite deliberate. Whether Kubrick knew about it or not, Hayden had also experienced incredible bureaucratic incompetency and the idiotic nature of military command, so all in all there probably wasn’t a better or more appropriate person to play Jack D Ripper.

As such we can look at Dr Strangelove not just as a satire of nuclear war or the Cold War, but also of anti-Communism in Hollywood. After all, Kubrick disliked Hollywood so much that he left and came to live and work here in the UK, and Dr Strangelove was one of the first films he made here. That it would contain a few jabs and a bit of deeply ironic casting is certainly not outside the realm of plausibility, though I’m not saying it was the key or core message to the film.

To wrap up this episode I would also like to point to something odd and possibly meaningless but I think it’s unusual enough to mention. Sterling Walter Hayden is one of those names like Lee Harvey Oswald, where each individual name could be used as a forename or a surname. You could re-arrange the three names and it would still sound right, so he could go by Walter Sterling or Hayden Walter or any other variation, which is very useful for a spy. On the other hand this type of naming where you take a surname and turn it into a given name is relatively common in the US so perhaps there’s nothing to it.