There cannot be many men prominent enough for a quarter page obituary in the Times of whom it might be written: “he seemed to be in an alcoholic stupor much of the time, supplementing his wine intake with hashish.” But this is what Sterling Hayden’s obituary said, and though the Times was describing a particular scene in a documentary filmed on Sterling’s barge in Paris, it was not so out of character as to be irrelevant to the obituarist’s reckoning.

Furthermore, I don’t think Sterling would have minded the description, though his widow (my mother) was less than delighted. He made no effort to hide his failings, about drinking or anything else. Punishing self-criticism was a theme of his autobiography, Wanderer, published in 1963, and in lighter versions it gave his appearances on television talk shows a sparkle of genuine eccentricity.

“Actor,...

 
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