Born in Johannesburg, Louis Hayward lived in South Africa and was educated in France and England, including Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, London. He spent some time managing a night club but wanted to act and bought into a stock company. He became a protege of Noël Coward and began appearing in London in plays such as Dracula and Another Language. He started being cast in some British films of the early 1930s.
Hayward came to Broadway in 1935 with a production of Noël Coward's Point Valaine working with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The play, described as one of Coward's worst and poorly received critically and popularly, only ran a short time.
After the debacle, however, he received an offer from MGM to appear in The Flame Within. He followed that film with A Feather in Her Hat (as the male lead) for Columbia. He garnered positive attention in the prologue of Anthony Adverse (1936). He was then cast as the first screen incarnation of Simon Templar in Leslie Charteris' The Saint in New York (1938).
In 1938 he starred in The Duke of West Point for producer Edward Small who signed him to make three films over the next five years, meaning he was unable to reprise his part as the Saint. Small cast him in a dual role in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) as well as The Son of Monte Cristo (1940).
During World War II, Hayward enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in July 1942. He commanded a photographic unit that filmed the Battle of Tarawa in a documentary, With the Marines at Tarawa—winner of the 1944 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Hayward was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.
While off-duty in New Zealand he "went under the name of 'Captain Richards' to avoid the rush of the ladies" as recalled by a waiter at a Wellington restaurant, the Green Parrot.
Returning to Hollywood, he played Philip Lombard in the 1945 film version of And Then There Were None (1945). He continued to make swashbuckler films. He made several television appearances in the 1950s. He starred in the 1954 syndicated television series The Lone Wolf and the 1961 British television series The Pursuers. Hayward's other television work includes a role as a judge in an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour titled Day of Reckoning (November 22, 1962).
Hayward's work onstage included Noël Coward's Conversation Piece and, in the early 1960s, the national tour of Camelot in which he appeared as King Arthur. Hayward retired from acting in the 1970s.
For his contributions to the motion picture and television industries, Hayward was honored in 1960 with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1500 and 1680 Vine Street, respectively.
Hayward married actress/director Ida Lupino on November 17, 1938 in a quiet civil ceremony held in the Santa Barbara courthouse. After he returned from the war he was drastically different, which caused a strain in the marriage. They were divorced in 1945. He then met Peggy Morrow and after dating for a while they married on 29 May 1946. They divorced four years later on 13 March 1950.
Hayward had one son, Dana (died 2007), with his third wife, June Hanson (died 1998).
In 1959, he was driving a car when it was hit by a driverless car and he sought $75,000 in damages.
Louis Hayward died on February 21, 1985 at the age of 75, in Palm Springs, California from lung cancer.
Hayward believed and stated that his more than five-decade-long habit of smoking three packs of cigarettes daily was the likely cause of his cancer, while spending the final year of his life fighting the disease.