To those who only know movies on a basic level, Dennis Hayden is an unknown actor.
To others, who are arrogant and disrespectful, he’s just “some guy who looks like Huey Lewis”.
While Dennis Hayden did not reach the heights of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, and did have some resemblance with singer Huey Lewis, he’s a little more than that.
Former football player, a skilled writer, actor and just a cool tough guy, Dennis Hayden has come a long and hard way.
In this exclusive interview, Hayden tells it all – from his difficult childhood and football days to his path in Hollywood and beyond.
Hayden’s childhood was not an easy one, according to his own words.
“I grew up on a farm outside a very small town in southeast Kansas. My mother was a lovely lady, but she ruled with an iron fist to discipline her children,” he recalls.
“As for my dad, he had the post traumatic stress disorder, left from World War II. He was great guy who loved his family and worked hard to take care of us,” Hayden told BZFilm, adding that his father also had a big problem – booze.
Hayden’s father did not have a drinking problem before he got enlisted, Dennis says, noting that the war turned his father into a full-fledged alcoholic.
“Sometimes, he would have these combat flashbacks and think his family was German soldiers out to kill him,” Hayden says.
Further on, Dennis reveals some shocking moments he experienced as a child.
“Dad would grab a butcher knife and chase my mom and us kids around the kitchen table. Later me and my elder brothers worked out a system – I would hide under the table and trip my dad, and they would tackle him high, and we’d all hold him down on the floor until he passed out,” Dennis says.
Hayden continues: “When Dad sobered up the next day he wouldn’t remember a thing. I’d ask him – Dad, why were you trying to kill us last night?, and he would always say: No, son, I wouldn’t do anything like that! I love you kids!”
Hayden’s problems with his dad and booze were not the only problems that he encountered while growing up. Tough childhood times were filled with poverty as well. As Hayden recalls it, “life was hard for my family”.
“My grandpa lived with us, and we were all crammed into a little three bedroom house set amid a few hardscrabble acres. We raised, grew, or hunted every scrap of food that was put on the table. There was no going to the grocery store because we rarely had money to spare,” Hayden says.
He goes on by saying that his family “did not have a phone, and sometimes even went without electricity because no bills could be paid”.
Hayden says he first started working at a very young age.
“We had running water only because we ‘ran’ down to the well and drew it out with a rope and bucket,” he says. “That was my first job as a small child: drawing water from the well and carrying it out to the fields to water the livestock”.
As Hayden puts it himself, “after miraculously surviving the age of six”, his mother hauled him over to “what we called the nunnery in the town of Greenbush to register for school”.
“Greenbush wasn’t really even a town. About twenty people lived near a small grocery store and the Catholic Church. The church was a powerful entity in our area, and nuns were used as teachers,” Dennis recalls.
“I was very tall for my age, and to this day I still remember the head penguin giving me an evil eye when she first saw me and saying: “Oooooh, now here’s a big one.” as if I was already, somehow, destined for religious troublemaking,” Dennis notes.
“Once I started school my daily routine would go something like this: before dawn my brothers and I would hand-water three hundred hogs, chickens, and ducks, then head out to the fields and milk thirty cows. Then we would walk two miles to the town of Greenbush for morning mass at the local church before going on to school,” Hayden recalls.
He also recalls “unfair” treatment he got from the nuns.
“I remember being so excited that first day, because I would get to play with my new friends at recess. But when the recess bell rang and the other four kids went outside to play, the head nun stopped me at the door and said I couldn’t play with them because I was too big. So now they had to figure out what to do with me for three recesses a day,” he says.
“One nun came up with a bright idea of having me perform plays and skits. So while everyone else was having fun outside, I would be in the classroom acting out one-man shows. By Christmas the nuns decided I should be allowed outside to play with others”.
Hayden also says the nuns were mean, sometimes to the point of being wicked.
“Their favorite instruments of torture were rulers and paddles, and they used them often on the school kids. They only hit me once. A nun cracked me across the back of the hand with a ruler edge for coloring outside the lines. I grabbed the ruler from her and broke it with just my thumb and told her: “The next time you hit me, I’m going to hit back.” They pretty much left me alone after that,” he laughs.
“To make a little money, my brothers and I would hire ourselves out to the neighbors for manual labor,” Hayden says.
After we’d finished out chores at the farm, we spent most of our time after school and on weekends and holidays making hedge posts, stringing barbed wire fencing across the prairie, and cleaning animal shit out of barns. In the summer months, when school was out and the fields were being harvested, we mostly hauled hay. We were paid fifty cents a ton, and if we worked really hard we could haul twenty tons a day. To me, at the time, that was big money, Dennis recalls.
“My dad would load me and my brothers into the truck and drive us out to the city dump, where we’d would fill the truck bed with whatever scraps of lumber and toys we could find that other people threw away, Hayden recalls. “Sometimes my dad, who now had some money in his pocket, would disappear for a few hours into the area’s backwoods bars. When he returned to the dump he was too drunk to drive, so one of us boys would have to drive the truck home. I learned to drive when I was six years old. Being tall, I was able to reach the floor pedals and see over the steering wheel.”
First spark towards acting and television
Hayden remembers the moment – the day when his brother Bill came back from the dump with an old black-and-white television.
“We fashioned an antenna out of a coat hanger and baling wire and, lo and behold… contact with the outside world! The first show I ever saw was Whirly Birds, and I was fascinated by it,” Dennis recalls.
“That old busted-up tv gifted me with my first true moment of clarity: my brother Bill said all those actors we saw on the television made a lot of money. Something inside my head clicked like a light switch being turned on, and I realized that being paid money to act was what I wanted to do when I grew up. And, thanks to a few evil nuns, I had been training in the craft since I was six years old,” Dennis says.
“After graduating, I was enrolled as a freshman at Girard Unified District High School, which was about ten miles from the farm,” Hayden says.
High school was mind-blowing, Dennis says.
“I went from being around a handful of other classmates to being in the midst of 600 other students and so many pretty girls it made my head swim! I signed up for football, basketball, and track, because those sports covered the entire school year”.
He also vividly remembers the first day at school.
“On that first day, at noon when we went to lunch, I couldn’t believe it. They gave me all this food to eat and I didn’t have to hunt or kill any of it myself! Since I’d already put in a full day’s work at the farm that morning before going to class, I was starving. I ate all the food they gave me, plus all the food the other kids sitting next to me left on their trays,” he smiles.
“Son, did you sign up for football?”
Hayden remembers a small patio outside the high school, where where all the kids hung out after lunch until it was time to go back to class.
“I remember this big senior kid walked over to me and kicked me in the balls. Well… growing up with three older brothers who always tried to beat the shit out of me, and having learned defensive knife skills from fighting off my dad during his war flashbacks, I threw that kid to the ground and started to beat the snot out of him,” Hayden says.
“Suddenly, I felt someone grab me from behind,” he says. “Thinking it was another senior trying to hit me, I reached one of my long arms behind my back, grabbed this other guy by the throat and shoved him against the wall. I was just about to deliver a haymaker when I realized the guy I had by the throat was the High School principal Frank Jameson.”
“I quickly let go of him and told him how sorry I was. I thought for sure I was going to be expelled. Instead, he looked me over while rubbing his throat, and then he said: “Son, did you sign up for football?” I said: “Yes, sir, I did.” He smiled and patted me on the shoulder and said: “Good. See you at practice later.” And as he walked away he added: “The guy that kicked you in the balls; don’t beat him up too bad. He’s our starting fullback.”
For the next four years, Principal Jameson was the best ally I had at school,” Hayden laughs.
“Football was easy for me. From the time I was young, I’d hire myself out during the summers for migrant work on the wheat harvests. In hundred-plus degree temperatures, I’d work from dawn to dusk cutting fields from Oklahoma all the way up to Canada,” Hayden says. “That was long, hard, manual labor often in the middle of nowhere. If an 800lb. header broke on a combine, I would have to fix it myself. If a wheat truck broke down, I’d have to repair the motor myself with whatever meager tools and parts I had on hand.”
Considering all this hard physical work, its no surprise football seemed like an easy ride for Hayden.
“When school started and I went to my first football practice as a freshman, the coach wanted to see just how tough I was, so he sent the entire offensive line out to take me down during a tackling drill,” Dennis says. “I got rushed be eight guys. I knocked every single one of them to the ground. The coach told me I was going to be a starting lineman on the varsity team”.
“Because of the way I tackled people, my coach gave me the nickname ‘Meat Hook’. I’d grab the ball carrier with one hand and throw him to the ground. I got rid of a lot of my aggression on the football field,” Hayden admits.
“Now, looking back on it, I actually feel kind of sorry for those kids I played against, because they suffered for every time my father had tried to stab me in a drunken rage; every time one of my brothers had tried to beat the crap out of me,” he said.
“I never realized how good a football player I was. Every Monday morning the coach would post write-ups from the local newspaper on the school bulletin board about how well our team was doing, and my name was mentioned a lot. But I never really noticed. I was so busy with chores in the morning before class, and then working until late at night for whichever neighbor I’d hired myself out to for farm work. School became just a place for me to get a few hours sleep in between jobs,” he said.
Dennis also admits that he was very surprised when scholarship offers started coming in.
“I didn’t really have anybody to ask for advice, and I remember thinking to myself: if I go to a school too far away or even out of state, I won’t be able to help out on the farm. So I decided to go to a junior college in Fort Scoot, Kansas, which was about thirty miles away. They had a solid football program, and offered to pay all my tuition and books, which at the time was a whopping $400,” he recalls.
Hayden admits that his football program at Ft. Scott College took off badly, and went downhill from there.
“It began the moment I walked in the locker room,” he says. “I wear a size 17 shoe. The biggest cleats they had was size 13, and the coaches didn’t really seem to care about getting me a pair of shoes that fit. Believe me, competing in athletics while wearing shoes four sizes too small is a painful experience”.
“The most vivid memory I have is practicing in 100-degree heat in mid-August. For some reason the coach had singled me out. He was really giving me a hard time.
“During the scrimmage our star running back went down with cramps. This guy was something to watch on the playing field: fast, smart, a body chiseled with muscles. During the scrimmage, when he went down with cramps, the coach just stood there screaming at him because he couldn’t get up,” Hayden says.
“After a few minutes of that bullshit the coach just walked away, leaving the guy writhing on the sidelines. They ordered the scrimmage to resume, and the coach told us guys on defense to go at half-speed. Then he walked over to the offense and called a play for them at full speed, directed straight at me. I heard him tell the offense: “Knock Hayden on his ass!” Well… I wasn’t going to just stand there and let that happen,” Dennis notes.
“The ball was snapped – a running play directly at me. I stacked up the three offensive linemen trying to block me, and then slammed the fullback to the ground so hard it caused him to fumble. The coach was enraged, running over and screaming in my face. All that did was piss me off even more. I heard the coach call another running play to the other side of the line, this time away from me,” Hayden says.
“When the ball was snapped again, I pulled from the line, ran to the other side, laid out three more blockers and plowed another running back into the turf. The coach was so mad he called an immediate stop to practice and ordered everyone off the field,” he added.
“Meanwhile, our star running back was still lying on the ground moaning, his body all cramped up. The coaches left him there. No one tended to him. Later that night, one of my teammates told me the running back was taken to the hospital. He died a short while later,” Hayden recalls.
Hayden says the very next day a lot of guys quit the football team. Dennis however was not a quitter.
“At the funeral for our fallen teammate, the coach came over to me. He was so humble; a completely different person than the screaming psycho I’d come to know on the playing field. He begged me to not quit the team,” Hayden recalls.
What Dennis did next – he asked the coach to get him size 17 shoes, in which case, he would not quit the team. A quite hostile reaction from the coach followed.
“The guy immediately snapped, completely freaked out, yelling at me so loud in the church that spit was coming out of his mouth. Who the hell was I to ask for a new pair of shoes! I tried to reason with him; told him that if he got me a pair of shoes that fit I would probably be an even better football player,” Hayden says.
“However this only turned him more psychotic. I listened to him for a moment, screaming at me in a church filled with mourners, and finally told him he really should buy a pair of size-17 shoes… and then shove them up his ass, because I was never going to play another down for a prick like him. If I ever played football again, it would be in the movies.
And with that, I walked out of the church and started making my plans for Hollywood,” Hayden concluded.
Dennis Hayden set his sights for movies, and was building up his acting resume, after a string of acting jobs. In 1988 he starred in “Action Jackson”, with Carl Weathers.
“Action Jackson was a fun movie,” Dennis recalls. “In my opinion the Director of that film, Craig Baxley, is the coolest director I’ve ever worked with”.
Hayden says while he was working on “Action Jackson”, he got a call from his agent, about another film project on Fox Studios. Jackie Burch Casting wanted Hayden for another film.
“I show up for the meeting at Joel Silver’s office, and Jackie suddenly hands me a script and says I’ll be reading such-and-such scenes. Well… nobody told me I’d be doing a cold reading. I’d have no time to even look at the pages and digest my character,” Hayden says.
“All of a sudden Joel Silver’s voice comes booming out from one of the executive offices: Dennis Hayden doesn’t have to read for me, Jackie! He’s starring in one of my movies now, and he’s going to be starring in my next movie Die Hard! I just wanted you to meet him!”
“I appreciated Joel saying that, but I also remember thinking to myself: “After being yelled at like that, I bet Jackie Burch Casting never brings in for another movie ever again.” And I was right,” Dennis says.
Hayden claims before the filming of “Die Hard” started, actors were sent to a real military boot camp for basic training and advanced weapons instruction.
“Since my character in Die Hard would be wearing cowboy boots, that’s what I wore throughout the entire rigorous program,” Dennis says. “Not only that, I finished the training rated at the top of my class. The head honcho from Special Ops came over to me afterward and said that if I wanted to do this kind of thing for real, he could get me work. I thanked him for the offer, but said I’d stick to acting”.
Hayden says in the original version of “Die Hard”, his character (Eddie) died about halfway through the film, which of course was cool, but not that cool. Luckily for Dennis, the situation changed.
“While the project was still in development, I stopped by to see a friend of mine who had a recording studio. And it just so happened that Bobbie Marcus, a renowned publicist who handled such clients as Herby Hancock, etc., had an office there,” Dennis recalls.
“I walked right into her office and introduced myself. I said I’d just finished starring in a string of box office hits, numerous television shows and commercials, and wondered if she might be interested in doing publicity for me. She said she would, and wanted to know what projects I had coming up”.
“I told her I’d just been cast in another Joel Silver film called Die Hard. She looked at me and said: “My future brother in-law, Steven deSouza, is one of the writers on that film.” Once again, the light bulb went off in my head, and I said: “Well, Bobbie, If you can get your future brother-in-law to rewrite the script so that my character ‘Eddie’ lives until the end of the movie, I’ll hire you as my publicist.”
She called me back about a week later and said: “You not only live until the end of the movie, you’re the last villain Bruce Willis shoots.” And the rest, as they say in Hollywood, is celluloid history,” Hayden said.
Die Hard film, which was destined to become one of the best action movies of all time, was in fact based on a 1979 novel “Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorp. Hayden said he never read the novel.
Despite film’s success, it was not all so smooth for Dennis, as he tells the story.
“When Die Hard first came out, a Los Angeles newspaper said: Huey Lewis did a great job in the movie’, so Huey got some good press,” Hayden recalls.
The point is, Hayden, as some people believed, looked like american singer Huey Lewis. And, some media outlets, even after some time, continued with their disrespect towards Hayden.
“Animated TV series The Cleveland Show showed a Christmas skit called ‘Semi Die Hard’ and used my character ‘Eddie’ but called him ‘The Guy Who Looks Like Huey Lewis’,” Hayden said. “To top it off, they actually hired Huey Lewis to do the voice-over.”
Despite this, Dennis also recalls how he encountered Bruce Willis years after the released film, and spoke to him about the “Die Hard” ending.
“I ran into Bruce a while back and I said to him – You didn’t really kill me, as you shot me in the head, but I had a steel plate in my skull from the war, and the bullet just knocked me out. After everybody left the building, I woke up, stole an ambulance and escaped. I don’t think Bruce found that as funny as I did,” Hayden laughs.
BZFilm also asked Dennis to talk a little about his movie “One Man Army”, the one he did in Philippines, with his friend, former martial arts champion Jerry Trimble. According to Hayden, he has nothing but great memories of the Philippines.
“I got a call one day from my friend Jerry Trimble, who said he was over in the Philippines working on a film. The writer of the film had written himself into the script as lead bad guy, but then developed cold feet and didn’t want to do it. Jerry wanted to know if I was available and if I would come to the Philippines and play the lead villain,” Hayden recalls.
“A few days later I was on a flight. I have to tell you, that was one long-ass flight. Being 6’4, the plane ride for me seemed to take forever,” Dennis smiles.
Then Dennis went on to tell about the “philippino style of driving”.
“When I arrived in the Philippines I took a cab over to the director’s mansion, and felt lucky to get there alive. You wouldn’t believe how they drive over there! Those cabbies think they’re in the Indy 500; it’s like organized chaos,” Hayden notes.
When Hayden finally got to the destination point, he was in for a surprise.
“I met Jerry at the mansion and we went in to see the director Cirio Santiago. He’s sitting on a sofa with a script in his hand. He tells me the villain role is written as a cripple. Obviously they weren’t going to play me as a cripple, so he tosses the script to me and says: Dennis, you will have to rewrite the script,” Hayden recalls.
He further explained why there was really a need for him to rewrite the script.
“Cirio Santiago hired a writer to do the rewrite, but this guy hadn’t been to the United States since the 1950’s, and was really clueless as to what modern American society was like,” Hayden explains.
“As I went through the pages I realized the original writer had written himself a villain role in the movie much bigger than the hero,” Hayden says. “Since I had an easy first day on the set, I spent the next thirty-six hours rewriting the script; taking out a ton of my character’s overwritten dialogue, and updating story elements”.
As it later turned out, Santiago also hired another writer to do the rewrite. Santiago then compared what Hayden wrote, and what the other writer wrote, and the film eventually went on with Hayden’s version of the story.
“That little movie played on HBO for several years,” Hayden recalls. “The action sequences are real. When you see a stuntman jump on a speeding car or jump off a building without any pads on, that’s about as real as it gets”.
Not surprisingly, Jerry Trimble did all his stunts in the film by himself, according to Hayden.
“He did all those fights sequences himself. No stunt double. He was such a great professional to work with,” Hayden says.
As most people know, in 1998 “Man in the Iron Mask” film was released, starring Leo DiCaprio, Gerard Depardieu, Jeremy Irons and John Malcovich. The film was based on Alexander Dumas’ novel.
However, just a couple of months before film’s release, another “Man in the Iron Mask” was released, also based on the same novel. This was an independent picture, starring Edward Albert, Dennis Hayden, Meg Foster, Timothy Bottoms and Jerry Trimble.
“Our Man In The Iron Mask, was an independent epic filmed without a major studio backing it,” Hayden says.
“The film was intended as a starring vehicle for River Phoenix playing the dual role of the King and his twin brother, but River’s tragic death squashed that. Instead Timothy Bottoms, William Richert as Aramis, myself as D’Artagnan, Edward Albert as Athos and Rex Ryan as Porthos, were cast, along with Dana Barron and Meg Foster, who provided wonderful performances as the female leads,” Dennis recalls.
Hayden claims that the studio film with DiCaprio did not hurt their independent film, however in their case, casting became an issue. He explains further:
“Both studios made million-dollar offers for the script, but casting became an issue. Richert wanted the Musketeers to be real tough guys. That’s how I got involved. I remember that, after our film was screened in theaters, several women came up to me said they couldn’t believe how many macho men were in it,” Hayden said.
According to trivia, prior to 2006 all previous releases of “The Man in the Iron Mask” on DVD and Video were unauthorized and incomplete. Hayden explains why this happened.
“Richert’s original idea was to a shoot a rough draft of the movie, pre-sell it to raise additional funding, and then finish the project. Several of the distributors we dealt with promised us presale money, got greedy and instead released the rough cut,” he says.
“These people, especially foreign distributors, have a lot of different ways and sneaky tricks to steal your money. Richert and myself are still working on the film, using all the new digital and editing technology that’s available now. An artist’s work is never done”.
Hayden’s film career has been sleepy – since 2000 he appeared in only 16 movies. In 2010 and 2011 he did not make any film appearances at all. Former football player and “Die Hard” star says he’s simply enjoying life.
“I am basically semi-retired, and enjoying life. I learned a valuable lesson from my father about booze, and haven’t touched a drop of liquor in over thirty years,” Hayden said. “Nowadays I mostly work only on movies that my friends are directing or producing”.
He continues: I never did have a big Hollywood agent. My old agent William Kerwin still submits me for parts, but I rarely get called in for interviews.
“Most well-connected agents won’t take on new clients unless they’re already on a tv series or currently booking big studio pictures,” Hayden says. “I find it funny when an agent says when he already has someone like you. In my thirty-plus years in the film business, I have never run into ‘me’ yet”.
Hayden however does not sound like an artist who’s ready to quit what he’s been doing for so long.
“I would love to make my own films, and that was always the plan,” he says. “But these film markets and distributors – especially the overseas markets – are just a den of thieves. They have multiple ways of hiding profits or just flat-out stealing the project”.
Hayden notes that it is hard to make enough money on an independent film to be able to finance another.
“Once you finish one movie, you basically have to start from scratch in order to get another one financed,” he admits.
“I have written some very good scripts that got a lot of interest from independent producers and other actors – even some investors willing to risk the equity in their home to finance the project – but with the economy still in a slump and the unions either going on strike or threatening to, it just kills the effort.”
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