What the Incredible Voyage of This “Godfather” and “Dr. Strangelove” Star Tells Us About Addiction

(Editor’s note: In honor of Sterling Haden, who was born on this day in 1916, enjoy this tribute to the great actor from a year ago placing his life and work in the context of our current knowledge of addiction.)

By Stanton Peele

(the influence)

“Hillary goes nuclear on Trump,” read a recent Politico headline, describing the opening salvo of her presidential campaign: “at the heart of her speech was one powerful question: ‘Do we want his finger anywhere near the button?’”

But I’ve dealt with both Clinton and Trump on The Influence recently, and in any case, this article called to mind something more evocative than either: Dr. Strangelove, the classic satire about a crazy person pushing that button.

In the movie (directed by Stanley Kubrick), Air Force General Jack Ripper sends his bomber fleet to destroy the USSR because the communists are polluting the “precious bodily fluids” of Americans, thereby causing him to become impotent.

Remember General Ripper (pictured above), who stole the film?

Alert observers may note his resemblance to Captain McCluskey in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

Both were played by the remarkable Sterling Hayden, whose resumé defies belief: A Hollywood leading man in his early career, he volunteered for service and parachuted behind enemy lines in what is now Croatia in World War II, sailed the world, wrote brilliant books… and died drinking alcoholically.

We know that most people who experience addiction mature out of it—about half of them by age 35, and even a higher percentage, about three quarters, in the case of alcohol dependence, usually without any formal assistance.

Hayden emphatically bucked this trend. He went the other way. Let’s see if his story can tell us why.


Sterling Hayden was born 100 years ago in New Jersey, and appeared in some 50 Hollywood films, beginning with Virginia in 1941.

His earlier roles were as a leading man, including in John Huston’s inaugural 1950 noir film, The Asphalt Jungle. Hayden played a small-time hood trying to make a lifetime score on a heist doomed to fail.

Then there was the 1954 classic Johnny Guitar, directed by Nicholas Ray. Roger Ebert considered the film great, and said of it: “Johnny Guitar is surely one of the most blatant psychosexual melodramas ever to disguise itself in that most commodious of genres, the Western.”

Say, how do you get acting jobs like that, starring opposite Joan Crawford?

Well, you’re 6’5” and virilely good looking. (After Hayden dropped out of high school at age 16, he worked as a male model.) But you carry with you a troubled, existential demeanor.

Yet Hayden despised working as an actor. Amazon describes his 1963 memoir, Wanderer, like this:

The author was at the peak of his earning power as a movie star when he suddenly quit. He walked out on Hollywood, walked out of a shattered marriage, defied the courts, broke as an outlaw, set sail with his four children in the schooner Wanderer bound for the South Seas. His attempt to escape launched his autobiography. It is the candid, sometimes painfully revealing confession of a man who scrutinized his every self-defeat and self-betrayal in the unblinking light of conscience.

There’s a lot to unpack there. He got all of his four kids to run off with him and sail to Tahiti; who can even get their kids to go to the supermarket with them? And how did he know how to sail a boat in the open ocean?

And, say, if he despised movies so much, why did he come back to appear in Dr. Strangelove (1964) and The Godfather (1972)?

He is best known today for his roles as the corrupt Captain McClusky, whom Michael Corleone shoots in a small Italian restaurant in The Godfather, and as the demented Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper. Hayden’s scenes with Peter Sellers in Strangelove are comic classics, and Sellers is the straight man.

Hayden’s memoir was written impressionistically, stylishly. So we can add to “good-looking” the traits “multi-talented,” “daring,” “funny,” “thoughtful.”

Hayden had become a seaman while others went to college. In his early 20s he captained vessels around the world. By the time he walked out on Hollywood in the late 1950s, he was also a decorated war hero.

Hayden set aside his fledgling movie-making career at the end of 1941, when the US entered the war, to work for OSS (the predecessor of the CIA). He ferried arms across the Adriatic between Italy and Yugoslavia and parachuted behind enemy lines to help resistance members fight Croatian fascists.

Hayden (working for the US government, mind you) fought alongside the communists in Yugoslavia, against the fascists. He continued this political stance in Hollywood. This, you may have heard, could get you in trouble after the war.

And so he came to testify before HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee), where he named names of fellow communists.

I think we can all forgive Sterling his flaws. After all, would you have parachuted into enemy territory during World War II, giving up a cushy Hollywood career in order to do so?

If you were captured in that setting, there wasn’t a Hollywood ending.


But it wasn’t the trauma of war, or what we call PTSD, that haunted Hayden. It was his behavior at home. He said later:

“I don’t think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing [naming names].”

It’s an important clue to Hayden’s addiction. In my and Ilse Thompson’s PERFECT Program for addiction, “E” is for “embrace,” which begins with self-forgiveness.

Sterling Hayden never achieved what, in Buddhism, is called “lovingkindness,” or radical acceptance of himself—despite having about as much going for him as can be packed into one human being.

I haven’t mentioned any addictive involvements by Hayden in recounting his story so far. He simply didn’t have that reputation. And, if you think of it, how many intoxicants do you have time to use when fighting guerrilla warfare, sailing the open ocean with a bunch of kids, writing a long and painful autobiography, and acting with the leading directors in Hollywood?

Which brings us to the last, unfortunate film Hayden made.

From being a leading man to one of the best character actors in Hollywood history, Hayden became the subject of the 1983 documentary, Pharos of Chaos.

He was filmed on a barge where he spent much of his time in Europe. Hayden seemed to be in an alcoholic stupor, along with smoking a large amount of hashish.

In the film, Hayden says, ”What confuses me is I ain’t all that unhappy. So why do I drink, I don’t know.”

Why, indeed? Was he an alcoholic all along, during his careers as a seaman, actor, writer (Hayden also wrote a 700-page novel, Voyage, about the Tahiti experience) and war hero?

He certainly carried a good deal of pain and self-loathing. Is making films, including great ones, such a bad thing as Hayden made it seem? I don’t think so, especially when compared with lounging around a barge all day stoned and drunk, away from his family and involved in no visible productions other than intoxication. (Hayden was married at his death to a woman with whom he had two sons and maintained a home in Connecticut.)

Pharos of Chaos appears to be a case study of alcoholism. By now in his 60s (Hayden died in 1986, aged 70), he seemingly had run out of important, meaningful, engaging things he wanted to do. In contrast, for most of his life, different things had leapt out, beckoning him—the sea, teaching and being with his children, writing, acting, fighting fascism.

What should we take away from the story of this remarkable actor and man, Sterling Hayden, who matured into addiction instead of out of it?

The knowledge that nothing is more effective than purpose, even for a troubled person, to avoid and overcome addiction. And that for some people—often impatient, perhaps more talented, people—one of the most powerful prods to addiction is the loss of that purpose.

Practicing lovingkindness, as he and others can’t do towards themselves, let’s wish Sterling a happy centenary.


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