Six hours after receiving a standing ovation on Broadway for his acclaimed performance as a junkie in David Mamet’s "American Buffalo," 29-year-old James Hayden was dead of a heroin overdose. His performance as the pathetic junkie "Bobby" had been hailed for its realism. The Washington Post called Hayden "strikingly effective as that sorry wreck [of a junkie]." The Daily News praised ''the ghastly wreck of a youth, superbly set forth by James Hayden.'' The New York Times’ Frank Rich wrote, ''The young actor skillfully shows us a drug addict's weaving gait and unfocused expression.'' Few knew how closely Hayden’s art resembled his life. Newsweek called it ''probably one of the saddest charades in the real-life world of the theater.''
Hayden’s tragic circumstances were said to echo a scene from "American Buffalo" between "Donny" (J.J. Johnston) and "Bobby" (James Hayden):
Donny: Things are not always what they seem to be.
Bobby: I know.
The New York Post published one of the last photos of Hayden, taken as he was leaving the Booth Theater while "fans look on admiringly" after his performance on the night of November 7. Police found the young actor dead in his apartment the next morning.
At 3:40 a.m. on November 8, 1983, Hayden arrived at the Nevada Towers at 2025 Broadway, where he lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He greeted the doorman. "Hi, how are you doing?" When the elevator arrived, he said, "See ya later."
In his 14th floor apartment, Hayden phoned his estranged wife of one year, Barbara, who lived in California. Although involved with another woman, Hayden told his wife he would kill himself if she did not take him back. Allegedly, she refused because he would not seek treatment for his addiction, despite her desperate pleas for him to do so. Distraught, he told her he thought he was about to overdose. Then he "started to fade" and fell silent. He’s believed to have collapsed at 3:50 a.m. His wife immediately contacted the family physician, who phoned 911.
Emergency Services police removed the lock cylinder to apartment 14-G to gain entry. Hayden was already dead. He was fully clothed, sitting on a stool and slumped over the sink, still clutching the phone to his ear. On the kitchen floor were a hypodermic needle, several glassine envelopes-some full, some not-that were believed to contain heroin, a spoon, and a cotton swab. Hayden was officially pronounced dead at 4:35 a.m. at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital.
The theater world, friends and colleagues were stunned. Hayden was a gifted young actor seemingly poised for major stardom, a view shared by his friend, Al Pacino. Besides giving two acclaimed, major Broadway performances in less than a year, he’d just completed the role of "Patsy Goldberg" in Sergio Leone’s yet-to-be-released gangster epic "Once Upon a Time in America" (1984). Many believed it would be his breakthrough role.
Theater critic Clive Barnes called Hayden "a brilliant young actor with a glittering future." Arvin Brown, director of "American Buffalo," said Hayden "was about to become a big star. I'm as convinced of that as I've been convinced of anything since I directed Meryl Streep some years ago and had the same feeling about her for many of the same reasons." Brown first cast Hayden as "Bobby," the pathetic, childlike junkie in Mamet’s play in an Off-Broadway production three years earlier. "You get a sense about an acting temperament, and when you hit it, that's what you mean by talent," said Brown, who also directed Hayden’s Broadway debut in an acclaimed revival of Arthur Miller’s "A View From the Bridge," starring Tony Lo Bianco. Brown praised Hayden as ''probably the best young actor I've ever worked with.''
But Hayden had a chronic drug problem, which he managed to hide from almost everyone, including his "American Buffalo" costars, Al Pacino and J.J. Johnston. A close friend, Pacino said he was "completely devastated" and in "a state of shock" after being awakened at home at 6:30 a.m. with the news. "I loved him very much. We were close, especially over the last three years." Responding to questions about Hayden’s personal problems, Pacino said, "I didn’t know a thing about it." A quarter-century later, the tragedy still troubled Pacino. "That’s the single thing that gets me the most-that I didn’t know. Jimmy had a way of keeping things. I knew he had a drinking problem-we discussed it."
Like Pacino, J.J. Johnston was devastated by Hayden’s death. "I’m telling you, we met every day and talked." They had been friends for four years. "People do send signals. I failed, we all failed, to pick up the danger signals. We missed his unhappiness. That’s a tragedy we’re all going to have to live with."
Hayden’s costar in "A View From the Bridge," Alan Feinstein, said, ''I don't know what could prompt him to put a needle in his arm. 'Buffalo' was his second show on Broadway in eight months. He had a movie coming out with De Niro. He should've been on top of the world.''
One of Hayden’s neighbors was quoted as saying, "it doesn’t make sense. He seemed like a very contented, happy neighbor. I guess you never know."
Just the day before, a promotional letter from Hayden’s publicity agent read: ''Hayden says he's met a lot of 'Bobbys' in his life. He's grateful to have avoided the pitfalls of actually becoming another New York casualty.'' The New York Times said Hayden ''was reaching stardom while struggling to escape the street life of his past, a past of which few colleagues knew.'' Regarding Hayden’s drug use, ''American Buffalo'' director Arvin Brown said, "We had absolutely no indication of that. I feel I knew Jimmy pretty well, and I can't imagine for one moment that an actor could give the performances he gave and have a serious drug problem at the same time." That Hayden should die of a heroin overdose while giving a compelling portrayal of a junkie on stage was nothing more to Brown than a "cruel coincidence." The show’s publicist said, "There was never any indication of any kind of problem. He didn’t miss a single performance." Method acting guru Lee Strasberg’s widow, Anna, said, "You couldn't hide something like that, could you?"
But others saw signs. The late Richard Bright, who appeared in "Once Upon a Time in America," said Hayden admitted to him that he had an addiction, while they were on location in Rome. (Bright costarred with Al Pacino in his first starring role, as a junkie also named Bobby, in "The Panic in Needle Park" (1971). (Coincidentally, the former real-life "Needle Park" was only two blocks from the building where Hayden died.) Bright claimed that the signs of Hayden’s drug use were subtle but unmistakable. "He maintained it at a level where people didn't know. He was never falling down. Sometimes he would nod out, but it was always after a rehearsal or a shooting or early in the morning, always in the context of people being tired." Bright said Hayden wanted to kick heroin and he urged the young actor to get professional help. But Hayden always responded with "a multitude of excuses" for his procrastination (despite losing his roommate to heroin a year earlier).
A New York Post reporter who saw Hayden five months before his death said she didn’t recognize him because he was so emaciated. Hayden said he had "trouble sleeping" because "there’s too much to do" and confessed that he was fearful of the demands of stardom and of being typecast as "troubled" characters. "I’m about as troubled as any happy-go-lucky Irishman," he said. Like Bobby, the junkie character he played, Hayden said, "I want somebody to pat me on the back and say, ‘You done good.’" Director Arvin Brown said Hayden "had an almost childlike vulnerability and acceptance of experience. He was a creature of mood swings, but the kind of creative mood swings that make great acting. He was capable of great joy, he could get really down."
Friends said Hayden had "totally immersed" in the part. After his death, the New York Times noted that "few friends, however, believe Mr. Hayden's heroin use was also part of immersing himself in his character." Pacino has said that he’s known non-actors who abused narcotics. "It had nothing to do with the role. He was a child of the streets. And an extraordinarily sensitive individual."
The week before his death, Hayden spoke to The Daily News about his immersion process. He drew on "sad memories" and first-hand research to prepare for his "American Buffalo" role. This included attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, asking addicts how they became addicted, and spending long hours in the open-air, round-the-clock drug markets on the then-mean streets of Alphabet City on New York’s Lower East Side. The News observed: "His research paid off well. He bobs and weaves on stage, handling the fast-moving dialogue of playwright David Mamet with the ease of a seasoned veteran. But that does not stop him from continuing to rehearse and refine the image of Bobby."
Speaking of the part he first played Off Broadway, Hayden said, "The role has changed because I’ve changed. I’ve grown. I’ve had new experiences. I try to absorb that." Hayden took at least an hour backstage to prepare for each show’s performance. "That way I feel comfortable the moment I’m on stage. I’m not hit with a sudden change. I become the character."
Hayden was born and raised in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the son of divorced parents. Beginning at age 14, he became a chronic runaway, escaping his troubled home life by living on the streets. Sometimes, he sang for spare change. Seeking stability, Hayden enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1970, at age 17. "I was a paramedic with the Army during the Vietnam war. I saw a lot of soldiers come back home with bad drug problems. I've always believed that the real casualty of the war was increased drug abuse here." Hayden relied on these "war memories" in creating the role of Bobby, years later.
Hayden returned from Vietnam in 1972 and auditioned at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Without previous acting experience, he aced an impromptu audition with a reading from "The Glass Menagerie." Eventually, Hayden studied under legendary Method acting guru Lee Strasberg at the Strasberg Institute and became a lifetime member of the Actors Studio.
A faculty member at the Academy recalled Hayden "wanted to be an actor because he wanted to be anyone but himself. He always felt, even in the middle of the crowd, very much alone. And so for every play he was in, that was his life, his family. And if people applauded, he felt loved.'' An Academy friend said Hayden "was a fine actor but he was totally self-destructive. He tried to commit suicide at least twice. He was a very lonely, strange guy." An actress who’d known him since 1974-but wanted to remain anonymous-said, "Jim was very much into drugs, whether anyone knew it or not."
In October 1982, Hayden married California waitress Barbara Daniels. They separated within months due to Hayden’s drug use. Daniels returned to California but maintained contact with Hayden, urging him to give up drugs. It was Daniels who called for help when Hayden overdosed during their last, fateful phone call.
Hayden dedicated his performances in both ''American Buffalo'' and ''A View From the Bridge'' to childhood friend and roommate, Michael T. Kuhul. In 1981, Hayden found Kuhul dead of a heroin overdose in their East Village apartment. Friends said it took a year to persuade Hayden to relocate to a new luxury apartment at the Nevada Towers.
In a performance hailed as "near-perfect," Hayden made his Broadway debut on February 3, 1983. It was a revival of Arthur Miller’s "A View From the Bridge," directed by Arvin Brown and starring Tony Lo Bianco. The previous year, Hayden began playing Bobby the junkie in "American Buffalo" Off Broadway. He reprised the role during a six-week run in Fall 1983 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. before opening at Broadway’s Booth Theater on October 27 to good reviews.
Hayden was dead the following November 8. He had already completed a major role in the still-unreleased Sergio Leone epic "Once Upon a Time in America" that many felt would have made him a major star. The movie premiered seven months after Hayden’s death. The Syracuse Herald-Journal observed that "[Hayden’s] Patsy would have brought him dozens of movie offers."
The month before he died, Hayden posed for a photographer at a private party at the El Morocco nightclub with a "mystery date," a beautiful young woman he would only identify as "Elizabeth." The couple reportedly spent the evening dancing as young lovers do. Days before his death, a "glowing" Hayden told an interviewer about his new love. "I call her Bay Ridge," he said. "Can you imagine, all this time she was living in the same area and we did not meet until now." Then, he said, "For the first time, I am really truly in love. It comes direct from my heart and I have serious plans for me and Elizabeth." (The woman was Elizabeth Bracco, the younger sister of actress Lorraine Bracco.) Friend and costar J.J. Johnston said, "I knew he was separated from his wife, knew he had this new friend, Elizabeth. Both of them were great."
But at the time of his lethal overdose, Hayden chose to phone his estranged wife, Barbara.
During his brief life, James Hayden touched many lives. He helped the homeless, sometimes even bringing them into his home. Every Christmas, he wore a Santa Claus suit to distribute gifts to Bowery derelicts and the needy, a practice begun when an Army sergeant "coerced" him into doing it to cheer up his comrades. In his spare time, Hayden taught the art of acting to children at the Hudson Guild. "It’s tough to get their attention. I have to make a fool of myself first to show them that they can’t be self-conscious." Hayden even lent his expertise to the NYPD’s decoy squad to teach them the art of applying theatrical makeup.
"Jimmy was the best young actor that I’ve seen," said Al Pacino. "There was a sense of Jimmy Dean about him. In my life, I’ve never seen anything like the way people who knew him, even briefly, responded to his death." Director Arvin Brown said, "Jimmy kept his private life private. He was such a good-looking kid. Everybody fell for him. But he didn’t have one ounce of narcissism. He was an unsung superstar.” Hayden had been close friends with Tony Award winning actress Amanda Plummer, whose mother, Tammy Grimes, called Hayden "a charming, handsome boy and a fine actor. I know she’ll miss him." Actress Barbara Luna: "Jimmy was the kind of guy who once you met him, you took an immediate liking to him." Former costar Tony Lo Bianco called Hayden "a rare human being. You just don't find that kind of sweetness around." Theater critic Clive Barnes said, "Mr. Hayden will be missed as much for what he could have been as for what he was."
On November 12, 1983, Al Pacino and J.J. Johnston were among nearly 300 mourners who attended funeral services for James Hayden at St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Woodside, Queens. The Rev. James Michael, Hayden’s boyhood friend, officiated at the ceremony. Michael said that Hayden’s addiction had developed two or three years earlier and that he had been counseling him weekly for the previous year. "Our hearts have been ripped out and it hurts like hell. But Jimmy has only gone through a transition. He is with God."