Sunday, March 26, 2006

Fear and Loathing on the High Seas

Had he not died twenty years ago, Sterling Hayden would have been 90 years old today. He was and remains a meaningful figure to me, so I'd like to mark the anniversary.

Hayden is best remembered as the star of such films as JOHNNY GUITAR, TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN, THE KILLING, DR. STRANGELOVE (pictured above), THE GODFATHER and 1900. When he was a young and rising star at Paramount, their publicity mills called him "The Most Beautiful Man in the Movies" and "The Beautiful Blond Viking God" -- but when Sterling Hayden first arose in my consciousness, he was a different kind of beautiful. He was a formidable looking man in his 60s with an aura of the Old Testament, or maybe Captain Ahab; he stood 6' 5" and his craggy, wasted features were wreathed by a long, straggling mariner's beard that hung down over his chest like greyed seaweed. When he spoke, he seemed to be summoning his voice from the bottom of the sea, and in the years of his final illness (he died of lung cancer in 1986), he seemed to be dragging his life's breath up from just as deep.

Hayden got to me. I had seen him in the movies, of course, but he didn't really get under my skin until I first saw him for who he really was, in the first of a series of late night television interviews with Tom Snyder on NBC's TOMORROW, circa 1977. I was a habitual viewer of the show and would watch even if the guests didn't interest me; the unexpected often happened. During the first of Hayden's three TOMORROW show interviews, I seem to remember him not wanting to talk about old Hollywood, calling it "no way to live." This sort of mutiny didn't usually go over so well with Snyder, but in this case, the guest's preference to discuss real life matters led them to discover a wealth of interests in common. It was like watching two best friends meeting for the first time. The show particularly caught fire as they explored their mutual fascination with trains; Snyder spoke of his obsession with collecting Lionel model trains, then Hayden trumped him with the story of an actual railcar that he owned. A second guest had been announced, a promise hovering over the first half of the interview like an unwelcome intruder, but was happily bumped. When it was all over, I felt invigorated. It was 90 minutes of some of the best conversation I'd seen on television.

Some time after the broadcast, I happened to find a copy of Hayden's autobiography WANDERER at a downtown used bookstore. I eagerly snapped it up, looking forward to spending many hours in the company of this interesting character. Reading the book, I discovered that our early lives were somewhat alike, but that his disposition was far more rugged than mine. Hayden ran away from an unhappy home to sea at the age of 17 and rose in ranks as he sailed around the world, time and time again, finally becoming the skipper of his own ship. When he signed to Paramount as an actor in 1941, mostly to finance his aquatic life, he was promoted as a handsome, bare-chested, barefoot, nature boy -- a sort of prototypical Robert Mitchum. When he acted opposite THE 39 STEPS' Madeleine Carroll, the posters cried, "The two most gorgeous humans you've ever beheld - caressed by soft tropic winds - tossed by the tides of love!" Hayden and Carroll married after that film, but they were soon separated by his stint with the US Marines during World War II; they divorced in 1946.

As it did with many men, Hayden's wartime experience changed his life in unforeseen ways. As a wartime gun-runner, he formed many friendships with the people of Yugoslavia and became sympathetic to the form of Communism they embraced. He attended some meetings after returning home, which flagged him for the special attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Hayden was was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee for investigation and, to his everlasting shame, he cooperated -- naming names. Here his life, as he knew it, begins to disintegrate.

After giving his testimony, Hayden found it impossible to forgive himself, just as many of his colleagues in the film business found it impossible to forgive him. He sought escape from his inner demons at sea, throwing himself into sailing to the extent of becoming the skipper of his own tugboat, and occasionally amassing crews with whom he could sail out into the most challenging tests of the open sea. In order to maintain this increasingly essential lifestyle, he had to continue to work in films, which contradictorily inflated and ballyhooed a self-importance in which he no longer believed. He let his beard grow whenever he wasn't working in Hollywood, and he wrote of detesting the work because it obliged him to strip his beard away and come face-to-face once again with the mirror reflection -- the "rat" -- he held in such dread contempt.

After 1958, Hayden's film work became much more infrequent. The roles that wooed him back to the screen intermittently thereafter seem to share a common theme of corrupt power. It's there in DR. STRANGELOVE's Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, in THE GODFATHER's Captain McCluskey (the last of his bare-faced roles, he started growing his beard back immediately once he wrapped), and even in silly one-day jobs like his walk-ons in Robert Fuest's THE FINAL PROGRAMME (as peacetime arms dealer Major Wrongway Lindbergh) and William Reichert's WINTER KILLS.

Hayden remarried several times (even the same woman a few times) and fathered families, but escape from himself -- escape into women, into the sea, into writing -- seems to have remained a priority. Then, in the 1960s, he discovered marijuana and began escaping into himself. He described it as a means of survival, of maintaining his inner peace, when landlocked. His co-workers have said that he would load his meerschauum pipe with it anywhere and everywhere, smoking it freely without regard to its illegality, and apparently had no problems with the law about it. He spoke about pot as if it were the great illumination of his life, and he was writing a book about the role it had come to play in his life at the time his final illness was diagnosed. Unfortunately, that second volume of autobiography never surfaced.

As a young writer, I was very taken with WANDERER, which had tremendous literary value for a Hollywood autobiography. It helped me to see that the greatest adventure upon which anyone can embark is the dark and by no means secure journey into themselves. It inspired me to write a poem I no longer have, called "Daddy Jim (Back in the Shadows)," Daddy Jim being Sterling's name for his stepfather. It's been so long since I've read the book, I no longer remember the precise nature of their relationship, but it resonated with me at the time. Magically, my reading of WANDERER and my writing of this poem happened to coincide with Tom Snyder announcing at the end of a TOMORROW broadcast that Sterling Hayden was going to be his only guest on the next night's program. Hayden was coming in to promote his new novel, VOYAGE. Another book!

I tuned in and watched, of course. Both men spoke at length about how viewers far and wide had complimented them on what a special program the first interview had been. (I believe, to this day, Snyder recalls Sterling Hayden as his favorite TOMORROW show guest.) The second interview was interesting, above-average conversation about life and films and literature, but not quite as captivating as the first. At the end of the show, there was a promo for the hotel that provided lodgings for TOMORROW's guests, and I resolved to take that information and try to get in touch with Sterling Hayden.

The next morning, I called the hotel switchboard in New York and, to my surprise, was put straight through. I think I woke the Haydens. Sterling's wife Catherine answered, and I could hear her whisper discouragingly to her sleepy husband that it was a TOMORROW show viewer calling. Then I heard the familiar voice roused in the background, booming cheerily, "No no no! I'll talk, let me talk to him, give it here -- HELLO!"

As I was introducing myself, Sterling interruped by exclaiming "'Tim Lucas' -- now there's a good, strong name!" A fateful exclamation. My father had died before I was born, and I grew up having no ties to my father's side of the family, so I never felt any particular attachment to my own name. At that time of my life, I was toying with the idea of changing my name, if only on my manuscript cover pages. But when Sterling Hayden -- my idea of a good, strong name -- responded so favorably to mine, I took the endorsement to heart and decided to stay Tim Lucas.

Our conversation lasted for no longer than five minutes, but, in that short time, I told Sterling how the first Snyder interview had inspired me to read WANDERER and how deeply it had impressed me. I told him about the poem I'd written in response to the book and that I would like to share it with him. He gave me an address in (I think) Hartford, Connecticut, where I sent the poem along with a chapbook I had written and self-published about Amelia Earhart -- which I thought might interest him, being about another kind of voyager. "You can write me there," he said in his King Neptune's voice, "and I will respond to you!" He thanked me warmly for reading him, and for tracking him down.

I never heard back from Sterling Hayden, but that wasn't the point. We made contact -- a contact I still look back upon happily and with privilege. I proceeded to buy and read VOYAGE in hardcover , which remains one of the most criminally, critically overlooked novels of the late 20th century. A proud accomplishment. He never wrote another.

When Sterling Hayden appeared on TOMORROW some years later, for the third and last time, he was clearly ill, a more diminished Biblical figure. He was dressed like a hippie, in a form-fitting T-shirt (possibly tie-dyed) and a headband, and he made horrendous deep-breathing noises as he fought to dredge oxygen from his lungs between drags of his chain-smoked cigarettes. He talked about the marijuana manifesto he was trying to write, and about the difficulty of writing. I thought about trying to approach him again through the mail, but time had passed since our previous contact, and I didn't.

And so, with these thoughts in mind -- Happy Birthday, Sterling Hayden. I would love to have the time to sit down and read your WANDERER and VOYAGE through once again; they're both big books, as befits their bigger-than-life author. It was such a strange way in which your life touched mine. Today, when I see you in DR. STRANGELOVE, your pupils dilating with terror at the prospect of your character's manifest destiny (and, legend has it, your inability to get through your lines), I marvel at the thought that this Mt. Rushmore figure of the cinema was the man to whom I spoke on the telephone, and who, with unexpected warmth and familiarity, gave me back my name.

PS: Another anniversary. Donna tells me that it was 23 years ago today that we turned our backs on apartment living and moved into "the old Minser place," which we proceeded to turn into the Video Doghouse. This old house, which was built 99 years ago, has been the base of all our good fortunes and we love it, though we're both perpetually distracted and don't care for it nearly as well as we should. I like the idea that Sterling Hayden's birthday is also House Day. We've lived here longer than we've lived anywhere else, together or apart, and be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.

3 comments:

  1. Tim, Highly interesting personal anecdotal memories of Sterling Hayden, whom I also am fascinated with as a human being. My archive, www.atvaudio.com has some of the Tom Snyder interviews with Hayden. I am aware of two interviews, 1977 and 1980. Do you have a date for the third of three interviews which you remember viewing? Thanks for your feedback. Phil

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  2. Thank you, Phil. I'm afraid I didn't note the dates of the interviews I saw, but I was a nightly TOMORROW viewer and saw many an unscheduled surprise guest that way. I will definitely check your website, and am grateful to know that those two interviews at least still survive.

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  3. All three Sterling Hayden interviews on the Tom Snyder Tomorrow show are now up on YouTube.

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