4 Classics Starring Sterling Hayden

Though never an A-list star, Sterling Hayden had a long and varied career that included performances in some of the classic era's most celebrated films.

Born in New Jersey, Hayden took to the seas after dropping out of high school and sailed across the world,  before becoming a print model and signing a contract with Param0unt Pictures. He took a detour into World War II under the nom de guerre, John Hamilton, and served with distinction as an OSS officer.

Upon his return, Hayden resumed his movie career and became a prominent leading man specializing in Westerns and crime thrillers. Though he was never quite the star the studios wanted him to be, Hayden nonetheless delivered several great performances throughout his career.

A classic film noir and one of the great heist movies of all time, The Asphalt Jungle earned Hayden wider recognition after an uneven start to his career. Directed by John Huston, the film starred Hayden as Dix Handley, a career criminal who joins a heist crew and wants to use his share to buy back the horse farm his father lost during the Great Depression. The heist involves the theft of $1 million in jewels and is headed by Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe), a criminal mastermind just released from prison. But the meticulously planned job goes awry and forces the gang to go on the run. One by one, they're either killed or picked up by police, as Dix meets a memorable end by dying at his beloved horse farm. Hayden's turn as tough guy Dix is an all-time classic.

A bizarre Western from director Nicholas Ray, Johnny Guitar was a subversive film that depicted two strong women fighting each other while the men stand idly by. Hayden starred as the titular Johnny Guitar, a guitar strumming drifter who finds his way to an isolated Arizona town. There he meets Vienna (Joan Crawford), a saloon owner who pins her financial hopes on the upcoming railroad bringing in customers. But before that happens, a vicious rancher (Mercedes McCambridge) wants to drive Vienna off and take her land. Vienna hires Johnny to help her out, but he's reluctant to get in a fight, leading to her facing one life threatening event after another, including a climactic lynching. Hayden delivered a spirited performance, though the film ultimately belonged to Crawford.

Another great heist movie, this time directed by Stanley Kubrick, The Killing showcased Hayden in another classic role. Hayden played Johnny Clay, a career crook who agrees to perform one last job before he settles down to a life of domestic bliss with Fay (Colleen Gray). The heist in question turns out to be a racetrack robbery masterminded by Johnny himself. But the plan goes south due to Johnny's fatal flaw of working with a crew of two-bit criminals who are in over their heads. The crime initially turns out to be a success, but a double-cross followed by an unforced error committed dooms Johnny and his cohorts. Notable for being Kubrick's first major feature, The Killing once again enhanced Hayden's reputation as Hollywood's go-to tough guy.

After appearing in a string of forgettable movies, Hayden triumphed with a small, but pivotal role in Kubrick's classic Cold War satire, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Hayden played General Jack D. Ripper, an anti-Communist who starts a nuclear war. Ripper has commanded an squadron of B-52 bombers to attack the Soviet Union with atomic weapons, leading his British attaché, Colonel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), to figure out what has gone wrong and rightly concludes that Ripper has gone mad, since he blames the communists for stealing Americans' precious bodily fluids. Meanwhile, the President (also Sellers) tries to prevent catastrophe while trapped in the war room with the Soviet ambassador (Peter Bull), the jingoistic General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), and the not-quite-reformed former Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers again). Of course, Sellers' triple performance was the highlight of this classic, but Hayden more than held his own in an equally eccentric role.