He came to the movies as a sailor. He appeared with his wife at Paramount in Virginia (41. Edward H. Griffith) and Bahama Passage (41. Griffith). Apart from Manhandled (44, Lewis R. Foster), he spent the war vears in the marines. When he emerged, the marriage ended in divorce and Hayden found himself moving from studio to studio: Blaze of Noon (47, John Farrow); Albuquerque (47, Rav Enright); Flaming Feather (51, Enright); Journey into Light (51, Stuart Heisler); So Big (52, Robert Wise); Denver & Rio Grande (52, Byron Ilaskin); The Star (53, Heisler); Take Me to Town (53, Douglas Sirk); Prince Valiant (54, Henry Hathaway); Crime Wave (54, Andre de Toth); Suddenly (54, Lewis Allen); as Jim Bowie in The Last Command (55, Lloyd); Naked Alibi (55, Jerry Hopper); Arrow in the Dust (56, Lesley Selander); Valerie (57, Gerd Oswald); Crime of Passion (57, Oswald); and Terror in a Texas Town (58, Joseph II. Lewis).
He dropped out of circulation during the early 1960s, apart from his colonel in Dr. Strangelove (63, Kubrick). He sailed some more and published an autobiography, Wanderer. Only at the end of the decade did he return to movies: Hard Contract (69, S. Lee Pogostin); in the remarkable Street Hunters (69, Ruy Guerra); Loving (70, Inin Kershner); Le Siut de I'Ange (71, Yves Boisset); as the corrupt policeman assassinated over the pasta in The Godfather (71, Francis Ford Coppola); the drunken writer in The Long Goodbye (72, Robert Altman); as Major Wrongway Lindbergh in The Final Programme (73, Robert Fuest).
His undoubted resonance as a Lord Jim-like flawed hero was aided by his tattered, maudlin self-contempt at the way he abandoned friends by turning state's evidence to the House Un-American Activities Committee. The willing self-portrait in The Long Goodbye testified to Hayden’s real-life prowess as a novelist in Voyage. On screen, he was a newspaper editor called Pulitzer in Cry Onion (75, Enzo Castellari) and a peasant patriarch in 1900 (76, Bernardo Bertolucci). He refused to shave, but still played King of the Gypsies (78, Frank Pierson), and he was at ease in the madness of Winter Kills (79, William Richert). He went to Ireland for The Outsider (79, Tony Luraschi), and also appeared in 9 to 5 (80, Colin Higgins); Gas (81, Les Rose); and Venom (82, Piers Haggard).
Hayden always looked shy of glossy stardom, more his own master than smile-flexing Flynns and Powers. At his best, Hayden was solid, weathered, and fatalistic: a taciturn, gangling John Hamilton, as calm as a Melville sailor who had seen great sights and was puzzled bv the need to talk of them.
Three times that placid strength was invoked: as the horse-loving perfectionist in The Asphalt jungle (50, John Huston); as the stranger in Johnny Guitar (53, Nicholas Ray), deliberating over the operatic dialogue of that film; as the organizer in The Killing (56, Stanley Kubrick), finally dismayed by the dollar bills winnowed in aircraft slipstream. His seeming spiritually wearied by that debacle only added to the impression of stoicism that he conveyed.