Hayden worked behind the scenes in films in jobs such as sound recorder, film cutter, and assistant cameraman before he became an actor in the mid-1930s. At the beginning of his acting career, he mainly starred in Westerns and was voted one of the Top Ten cowboy stars. He played Lucky Jenkins, one of a trio of heroes in the Hopalong Cassidy westerns starring William Boyd, then co-starred with Charles Starrett in other westerns.
In 1947, he played both the main hero and villain in the film Trail of the Mounties.
In 1950, Hayden appeared as "Marshal #1" in several episodes of the live-broadcast and short-lived American Broadcasting Company series The Marshal of Gunsight Pass. In the 1952–1953 season, Hayden teamed with Jackie Coogan, a former child actor in the 39-episode syndicated series Cowboy G-Men.
In the late 1950s, he produced and directed through his Quintet Productions two syndicated western series, 26 Men, black-and-white program starring Tristram Coffin, and Judge Roy Bean, a color production, with Edgar Buchanan, Jack Buetel, and Jackie Loughery. Hayden also appeared himself as Steve, a Texas Ranger, in twelve episodes of Judge Roy Bean, a family-oriented program considered at odds with the real Roy Bean.
Hayden and fellow western actor Dick Curtis helped to develop Pioneertown, a western movie set near Palm Springs, which has been used in western films and television episodes.
Hayden was married from 1938 to 1943 to actress January Clayton, who was later cast as the first mother on the Lassie television series on Columbia Broadcasting System. The couple had a daughter, Sandra Hayden (1940–1956). In 1946 Hayden wed screen actress Lillian Porter, who retired from pictures. The Haydens remained happily married until his death in 1981.
Hayden is interred at Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California.