Sterling Hayden, 70, a successful film star, ocean sailor and author who expressed a profound disdain for Hollywood and once took his children to the South Seas in defiance of a court order, died of cancer yesterday at his home in Sausalito, Calif.

Mr. Hayden, 6 feet 4 inches tall, was an imposing physical presence who was described in early publicity releases as a "Viking god over whom the females swooned." These qualities got him leading parts in his first films, "Virginia" and "Bahamas Passage," both of which appeared in 1941.

And for years afterward his rugged good looks, deep voice and gruff manner kept him busy in a long run of B-grade westerns and crime epics. With his growing skill as an actor, they also contributed to the authority and confidence with which he won critical as well as popular success in later pictures.

These included roles as Dix Handley, the hoodlum with a conscience who wants to go home and raise horses in "The Asphalt Jungle," the John Huston classic of 1950 that also was Marilyn Monroe's first major movie; Gen. Jack D. Ripper, whose efforts to rid the world of a communist plot to pollute "our precious bodily fluids" leads to nuclear holocaust in "Dr. Strangelove," the 1963 Stanley Kubrick film; and Captain McCluskey, the brutal and corrupt police official who is shot to death in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" in 1971.

Other well-received performances were in "1900," in which Mr. Hayden played an Italian peasant, "Hard Contract," in which he played a gunman for hire, and "King of the Gypsies," in which he played a clan leader.

In all, Mr. Hayden made more than 50 movies and also appeared in a number of television productions, notably on the old "Du Pont Show of the Week" and "Playhouse 90." His last part was that of John Brown in "The Blue and the Gray," a 1981 miniseries.

Although his career lasted more than 40 years, Mr. Hayden once said, "I'll go back to Hollywood to pick up a dollar, but that's all. Everything is wrong with that city. It epitomizes all that's wrong with life."

His own favorite role was that of an alcoholic writer in "The Long Goodbye" and Mr. Hayden attributed his success in it to "the prodigious powers of pot." In 1982, he stopped drinking and said, "I'm an alcoholic and I realize I can't drink any liquor."

As a writer, Mr. Hayden published two books. "Wanderer," which appeared in 1963, was an autobiography and a bestseller. "The book's about the struggle of a tortured individual to be himself in a society which is hostile to break-aways from the herd," he said in an interview in 1963. "I spent a lifetime selling out. I always hated acting but I kept on acting . . . a commuter on a tinsel train."

In 1977, he published "Voyage: A Novel of 1896," a lengthy tale of a trip under sail from New England around Cape Horn to California. It was a Book Of the Month Club selection but received decidedly mixed reviews.

During World War II, Mr. Hayden served in the Marine Corps and was assigned to the Office of Stragetic Services, the wartime forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. He served in Yugoslavia with the forces of Josip Broz Tito and won the Silver Star.

His experiences with Tito persuaded him to join the Communist Party when he returned to this country. In 1951, he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities about alleged communist activities in the film industry and named other party members. This allowed him to continue his career.

"I was a real daddy longlegs of a worm when it came to crawling," he wrote in his autobiography. "Not often does a man find himself so eulogized for having behaved in a manner that he himself so despises."

In 1959, Mr. Hayden took his four young children -- Gretchen, Matthew, Christian and Thor -- to Tahiti aboard a sailing vessel he owned. He acted in defiance of orders from a Los Angeles judge. The actor had received custody of the youngsters after his divorce from his second wife, the former Betty Ann De Noon, but the judge forbade him to take them on the voyage on the grounds that the boat was unseaworthy and its crew inexperienced.

Ten months later, when he returned, Mr. Hayden was cited for contempt but was let off with a suspended sentence.

Sterling Hayden was born Sterling Relyea Walter on March 26, 1916, in Montclair, N.J. When the boy was 9, his father died. His mother married James Watson Hayden, whose surname the future star took. The family lived in various towns where James Hayden tried unsuccessfully to start businesses.

At one point, young Sterling lived on an island in Boothbay Harbor, Me. He became fascinated by the sea and read many of the classics about it. When he was 16, he dropped out of school and shipped out on a sailing vessel. By the age of 20, he was a skilled navigator and he had his master's license by the time he was 22. In that year, he captained an 89-foot brigantine on a voyage from Gloucester, Mass., to Tahiti.

Publicity about the trip came to the attention of film executives who offered the handsome young captain a screen test. Mr. Hayden said he did not take these overtures seriously until a boat of which he was part-owner was damaged beyond repair and he needed money to buy a new one.

The result was a seven-year contract with Paramount.

In 1968, Mr. Hayden gave his support to one of his sons who was convicted of burning his draft card to protest the war in Vietnam.

Mr. Hayden's first wife was actress Madeleine Carroll, from whom he was divorced in 1946. In 1960, he married for a third time. His bride was Catherine Denise McConnell, a New York socialite. She survives, as does their son, Andrew. Also surviving are his four children by his second marriage.