Historicist: "An Exceptional Man"

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Historicist: “An Exceptional Man”

Hollywood actor Sterling Hayden gets busted for hashish at Toronto International Airport.

Star (April 28, 1981)

Star (April 28, 1981).

Departing Toronto International Airport on April 16, 1981, veteran Hollywood actor Sterling Hayden—star of The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Dr. Strangelove (1964)—was found by U.S. Customs agents to be carrying more than an ounce of hashish. With local RCMP alerted, the 65-year-old actor was arrested and charged with possession. With a conviction putting at risk his ability to earn his livelihood by freely crossing borders for filming, the judge issued an “exceptional” decision, granting an absolute discharge, on the grounds that “the defendant is an exceptional man.” He wasn’t far off, as Hayden’s previous visits to Toronto illustrated.

Sterling Hayden inspecting troops at City Hall during his visit to Toronto, ca. 1942. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3132.

The first time Sterling Hayden visited Toronto was during the Second World War, when he was a budding film star fresh off his big-screen debut in Virginia (1940), a big-budget, technicolor production. Though there was no newspaper coverage of the relatively unknown actor’s visit, his trip to Toronto was likely in connection to the war effort, as celebrities regularly dropped in to lend prestige to fundraising drives and help boost morale. He shook hands at City Hall, inspected some troops parading outside on the steps, and visited sailors at the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve headquarters.

Sterling Hayden talking shop with a naval officer at the the headquarters of the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve during his visit to Toronto, ca. 1942. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3127.

A reluctant movie star, Hayden had quickly learned to detest the job’s publicity duties, describing the five weeks he spent promoting Virginia across the country as “miserable.” He likely tolerated most of his Toronto itinerary. But he would’ve relished meeting with the naval volunteers, having headed to sea himself as a teenager, working on sailing vessels off the east coast for the better part of a decade. He was even first mate on an 18-month, round-the-world voyage aboard a schooner. Then a talent agent offered Hayden a screen-test based on his good looks alone—which would eventually earn him hype as “the beautiful blond Viking god”–and he signed a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures.

In Hollywood he spent his days on the Paramount lot, lifting weights, taking acting lessons in the talent department, and waiting for studio chiefs to tell him what parts he needed to play or which fan magazine writer he needed to placate—”bloodsuckers,” he called the latter. His dressing room on the studio lot was decorated with photos of schooners and sloops, conversation-starters he used to regale visitors with stories of his previous life. He’d have had much to talk about with the naval volunteers in Toronto, sharing his own stories of the sea, and listening to theirs.

Sterling Hayden admiring model ship at the headquarters of the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve during his visit to Toronto, ca. 1942. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3126.

Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the Americans into the Second World War in late 1941, Hayden had wanted to get into the war. “Having led an irregular life,” he said of his ambition in his autobiography, speaking of himself in third person, “he would wage an irregular war—vague intimations of danger, but just this side of bloodshed. Excitement, but no hardship.” First, he tried travelling to Scotland to train as a freelance commando with Dutch, Polish, and Belgian expats fresh from the front-lines. But a parachuting accident returned him home to North America. Eventually, under the alias John Hamilton, Hayden caught on with the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA, and served in the Adriatic Sea, and elsewhere, running Nazi blockades in small boats transporting arms and ammunition to Josip Broz Tito’s Partisans in Yugoslavia—from whom he absorbed some socialistic sentiment.

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When Hayden returned to Toronto, in late October 1963, he’d turned his back on Hollywood stardom and become an author. The 1950s had seen his professional highs and personal lows. He’d had career-making turns with the leads in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), John Huston’s iconic dissection of the planning, execution, and fallout of a diamond heist, and Stanley Kubrick’s hardboiled classic, The Killing (1956). But apart from those two movies, he told the Toronto press, he didn’t much like the parts he was contractually obligated to play. He appeared in mostly B movies, known best for westerns, film noir, and action fare like Zero Hour! (1957)—based on an Arthur Hailey short story. Even films that eventually became cult favourites, like Johnny Guitar (1954), Nicholas Ray’s existential western, didn’t satisfy him.

(Left: Globe and Mail [November 1, 1963].)

While his career, to the casual observer, seemed successful, his personal life was troubled. After returning from the Second World War, Hayden had briefly joined the Communist Party, attending meetings for six or seven months. When called before Congress in 1951 as part of Hollywood’s Cold War blacklist, Hayden named names. He regretted it deeply afterward, expressing the level of “contempt” he held for himself for having done it. But he’d been pressured to testify by the FBI’s threat that he could lose custody of his children if he refused to cooperate.

His second marriage to Betty DeNoon ended in a bitter, protracted divorce, followed by an equally bitter fight for custody of their four children. Hayden was granted sole custody, and tried to give his children everything they could ever need—always fearful the court would return custody to his ex-wife. Despite making five or six films a year, he lived beyond his means and accumulated debts. Financial advisers were livid at his apparent lack of responsibility, wondering how he would pay for his style of living. “How? For Christ’s sake, I’ll earn it, how else?” came the retort in Hayden’s autobiography. “I’ll keep on making these crap pictures. I’ll make crap television. I’ll do anything that has to be done.”

Sterling Hayden in a still from The Killing (1956)

Sterling Hayden in a still from The Killing (1956).

Ever impetuous, in 1959, despite a judge ordering him not to, Hayden packed up his four kids and a crew of 20 aboard his schooner, Wanderer, and set off for Tahiti—walking out on film commitments in the process. “Sooner or later,” the Star in 1986 quoted Hayden as saying, “a man has simply got to do what he thinks is right, no matter what other people, or the courts, or his friends, or his enemies, or God himself may tell him. The trip cost me a fortune. But my only regret was that it ended too soon.” Upon his return to California, in early 1960, he pled guilty to defying the court order, and was given a suspended sentence of five days in jail and a $500 fine.

He recounted his family’s South Seas excursion, his youth and sailing career, and his disillusionment with the movie business in an autobiography, Wanderer (1963)—which Globe and Mail critic Frank Morriss called “sometimes vivid, sometimes boring.” The actor, who’d always felt lost in Hollywood, told reporters that he felt he’d finally found himself in writing. “I don’t want to act again,” Hayden told Morriss in October 1963. “I felt I was merely projecting myself into something else, and I wanted to stand up against myself to stand up against myself as I was. At best I was competent, but I didn’t give anything. I stumbled around.”

Hayden continued to act, however. Settling into middle age, Hayden’s looks faded into a ruggedness that—along with his rasping voice—made him ideal as a character actor. He accepted smaller, less frequent roles and thrived, turning in memorable performances in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976), and Nine To Five (1980). He worked only when he wanted to, turning down the Robert Shaw role in Jaws (1975) and the Peter Finch role in Network (1976). He was still constantly in debt, but the schedule allowed he and his third wife to split their year between Sausalito, California, Wilton, Connecticut, and a river barge in Europe.

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(Right: Star [April 18, 1981].)

On the afternoon of April 16, 1981, Hayden was on his way back to the United States, heading home to Connecticut after dubbing dialogue for Gas (1981), a forgettable comedy filmed in Canada. At Toronto International Airport, he was passing through pre-clearance at U.S. Customs when officials searched him and his luggage. They found a small piece of what they suspected to be a narcotic in the 65-year-old actor’s pockets, and contacted RCMP officers. It turned out to be 30 grams of Lebanese hashish, worth about $200.

Ushered into a police cruiser, the arresting officer, whom Hayden later characterized as “a big bastard” when recounting his arrest to a reporter a few years later, bellowed: “Sterling, I hear you’re in pictures. What do you do? I’ve never seen you.” Hayden continued his version of the car ride: “I said, ‘Did you ever hear of a picture called Dr. Strangelove? I played a general.’ He’d never heard of it. I said, ‘Did you ever hear of a picture called The Godfather? I played a police captain.’ He’d seen The Godfather. He started talking about girls and asking what money I made. I told him. By the time I got to the police station, he was very mellow.” After appearing in court that day, Hayden was released after posting $200 bail, with his appearance before Peel County Provincial Court set for April 27.

Star (August 24, 1980)

Star (August 24, 1980).

That Hayden might’ve been carrying hashish shouldn’t have surprised anyone; he’d admitted to using narcotics a year earlier in an interview with the Toronto Star in August 1980. Entertainment columnist Ron Base met Hayden in a cramped hotel suite in Montreal, where the actor was filming Gas. “I’m an alcoholic, eh? Been fighting it for years, so I’m not drinking,” Hayden told the reporter. “Grass is all I do now,” he added with pride. “Grass and hash.”

Among the photos and sketches on nautical themes, decorating the walls were empty bottles and a half-empty bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label, Base reported, displayed prominently to remind Hayden that he could no longer drink. A hard drinker since his early 20s, Hayden had eventually suffered a breakdown in 1972 and went to hospital for six days in 1978. Over the years, he’d tried lithium and therapy in his battle with the bottle. Finally, he tried cannabis and it helped him kick the booze, Hayden claimed. “Grass came into me and said take it easy. That’s why I love it so much.”

While recounting to the journalist instances of his being slightly stoned on camera during some of his acting gigs of the past decade—including taking a drag just before coming on camera to arrest Al Pacino in The Godfather—Hayden pulled out a long pipe. “Want some hash?” he asks Base, lighting up. “Good Iranian hash here.”

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(Right: Globe and Mail [April 28, 1981].)

At least one local fan was disappointed when Hayden didn’t show for his date in provincial court in Brampton on April 27, sending his attorney, Edward Greenspan, in his place. Greenspan presented Hayden’s argument that he used hashish as an “organic tranquilizer” to treat his alcoholism, a practice he’d initiated with the consent of his physician. Pleading no contest on behalf of his client, Greenspan didn’t contest that Hayden had had the narcotic in his possession. The lawyer merely argued for leniency because a conviction would disrupt Hayden’s ability to cross borders to film movies and earn his living. For simple possession, the elderly actor faced a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine, six months in jail, or both, and the prosecutor, Margaret Woolcott, urged the court to convict and issue a fine. She noted that had he been charged with exporting a drug, Hayden might’ve been facing a minimum seven-year sentence.

Noting that Hayden’s only arrest had been for a civil rights demonstration in the 1960s, Langdon agreed with Greenspan’s request for leniency—although he noted the amount in Hayden’s possession seemed somewhat excessive for personal consumption. “The result here will be exceptional, but then the defendant is an exceptional man,” Judge Kenneth Langdon told the court. “The defendant travels for a living. This is not what a usual defendant does. The severity of the consequences might outweigh the nature of the offence.” Langdon granted Hayden an absolute discharge. “It must have broken the heart of the Royal Mounted Police,” Hayden later recounted of the judge’s ruling.

Sterling Hayden in a still from Winter Kills (1979)

Sterling Hayden in a still from Winter Kills (1979).

Some observers lambasted the judge’s leniency. “This decision is a most gross example of the system of privilege which exists in our courts,” one letter to the editor read a few days later, “unduly penalizing the average offender while letting our high-profile ‘heroes’—entertainers, athletes and, of course, the otherwise wealthy—go free. If the law cannot be enforced equitably, change the law.” Labelling Hayden an “aging, faded, sometime movie actor,” columnist Earl McRae was appalled by what he felt was the judge’s special treatment of the actor, and objected even to the idea that Hayden did not need to appear in court for a summary offence. He feared that white-collar criminals or, exaggerating, even murderers might be able to get off if they claimed to be “exceptional.”

“If life is a one way street, then Sterling Hayden has always driven up it the wrong way,” Ron had concluded after his August 1980 meeting the actor who died in 1986. “He is one of those people for whom nothing is destined to go right, but who somehow always survives the wrongs.”

Sources consulted include: George Case, Calling Dr. Strangelove (McFarland & Company, 2014); Sterling Hayden, Wanderer (Sheridan House, [1963] 1998); and articles from the Globe and Mail (April 11, 1951; November 1, 1963; January 4, and April 14, 1964; April 17 & 28, May 1, 1981; and February 3, 1984); and the Star (June 5, and August 24, 1980; April 18 & 28, and July 4, 1981; and May 24, 1986).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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