Thursday, March 14, 2013

Garden of Earthly Delights 1: Sterling Hayden on “The Tomorrow Show”

There are thousands and thousands of mindblowing clips residing on YouTube at this moment that are in fact getting a very small amount of hits. I always rush to share these items with readers of this blog, because they are very often taken down without notice and in many cases don’t ever reappear.

I’ve noticed that a blog with advertisers and an actual staff of contributors now does what I’ve been doing as a one-man band since 2007. All I can say is that I don’t have their resources, but pledge to keep shedding light on these rarities as soon as I can — and trust you know how to save them on your desktop if you’d like to.

The first item in this series is a trio of interviews that Tom Snyder conducted with the legendary Sterling Hayden on The Tomorrow Show (aka Tomorrow). A lot has been said about how John Wayne was the ultimate “man’s man” onscreen, but that was a big façade. Hayden was the real thing — a sailor who quit high school to work on a schooner, a decorated Marine who parachuted behind enemy lines in WWII, a man who betrayed his friends during the blacklist and later made repeated public statements about what a mistake he had made (in this regard he was the anti-Elia Kazan), a man who stepped into and out of show business at various times in his last two decades to live on a barge that he kept moored off of Paris.

Hayden says pointblank about his acting skill in the third of these interviews that “I ain’t really professional.” He was a terrific performer though, in both starring (Johnny Guitar, The Killing) and scene-stealing supporting roles (Dr. Strangelove, The Godfather, The Long Goodbye). He totally stole the show in his interviews with Snyder, who was an erratic interviewer whose chats frequently took a left turn and never came back — which was terrific with a guest like Hayden.

The first interview of the three, from 1977, is available online as audio only, but contains some utterly mind-roasting moments (as when Snyder stops talking just to stare at Hayden). The first Hayden-Snyder conversation (as with classic Cavett, these are less interviews than really interesting conversations) covers a lot of ground: the two men’s love of old trains, Hayden’s time in the marine corps, his being a “stool pigeon” during the blacklist, and his discovery of pot at the age of 52.

Since this interview has survived (at least in the public sphere) only as audio, we are denied the sight of Hayden, but his booming voice is in fine form — no matter what amount of tobacco, pot, and liquor he put in his body, he had an incredibly commanding voice, even when talking about “tender” topics like the blacklist and his own addictions.

The second and third interviews exist as video online and they are, if possible, even more intense, since Hayden warmed immediately to Snyder’s off-the-cuff interviewing style and began to share more and more of himself with each appearance on Tomorrow. The second interview, from 1980, also finds him looking wonderfully eccentric, wearing a headband, a “forked” beard, and a odd-looking tie, as well as brandishing a very cool cane.

The conversation starts out with Snyder asking Hayden what it was like attending the funeral of Yugoslavian Marshal Tito. It is noted that Sterling was covering the event for Rolling Stone (an attempt to cast him in the mold of Hunter Thompson?), but in the third interview he sheepishly admits he never completed the article — the details of which he pretty much dictates verbally to Snyder in the second interview.

The interview turns from the funeral to the positive reaction Hayden received from his last interview with Snyder, and his seemingly uncontrollable alcoholism. The thing that strikes one watching Hayden as he descends into grim topics in this and the third interview is that here was a man who seemingly spent a lot of his life traveling, but also running away from the guilt he felt over being a “friendly witness” during the blacklist era.

The third interview occurred during the last year of Tomorrow, 1981. By this point Hayden is used to being interviewed on TV and seems to open up almost instantly, doting at length on the changes he felt in his old age, and again, on his addictions. The finale of the interview (around the 5:00 mark) finds Hayden talking about the overwhelming importance of finding an obsession in one’s life, his being “ships and the sea.”

These interviews are must-see items because they harken back to a time when late-night television could be about nothing — and everything. Hayden does have a book he’s pushing in the first interview, but not in the second and third; he’s there simply because he respected Snyder and enjoyed talking with him.

The most important reason to check these out is the sight of Hayden, the kind of gent most buttoned-down folks would call a “kook,” dispensing wisdom he acquired from living a hard, strange life. He was not the kind of a person to take the easy way out — in the second interview he notes how he broke a contract for a movie appearance and thus lost a 250K salary because the movie in question (the Peter Ustinov Charlie Chan feature) looked godawful.

Hayden’s life force was overwhelming — he is seated throughout these interviews but, dammit, the man is moving. To quote Hopper in Apocalypse: “I'm a little man, I'm a little man -- he's a great man!" Hayden was 6’5” in real life, but watching him here he seems even bigger.

My thanks to Anthony, the gent who runs this Tumblr (NSFW), for turning me onto these interviews.

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