Sessue Hayakawa
(06/10/1889 - 11/23/1973)

Sessue Hayakawa was a Japanese actor in both Japanese and American films, including two in the U.S. National Film Registry. He starred in over 80 movies and achieved stardom on three continents. He was also a producer, author, martial artist and an ordained Zen monk.

He was born Kintaro Hayakawa in Nanaura Village, Chikura Town, Minamibosō City, Chiba Prefecture, Japan on June 10, 1889, the second eldest son of the provincial governor

Hayakawa was on vacation in Los Angeles when he drifted into The Japanese Playhouse in Little Tokyo and became caught up in acting and staging plays; this was when he first assumed the name Sessue Hayakawa--it is common in Japan for actors to choose stage names. One of the productions Hayakawa staged was called The Typhoon. The movie producer Thomas Ince saw the production and offered to turn it into a silent movie using the original cast. Anxious to return to his studies at the University of Chicago, Hayakawa decided to discourage Ince by requesting the absurdly high fee of $500 a week. Ince agreed to pay it.

The Typhoon was filmed in 1914, and was a hit. On May 1 of that year Hayakawa married Tsuru Aoki, a Hollywood star in her own right who was from a family of performers. Hayakawa made two more films with Ince, The Wrath of the Gods with Aoki as his co-star, and The Sacrifice, before signing with the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, which later became Paramount Pictures.

In his second film for Paramount, The Cheat, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, Hayakawa played a predatory Japanese art dealer who burns a brand on the shoulder of leading lady Fannie Ward. With this role Hayakawa's dashing good looks and acting style made him an instant matinee idol. By 1915 his salary soared to over $5,000 a week. In 1917 he had the money to build as his residence a castle on the corner of Franklin Avenue and Argyle Street, which became a landmark until being torn down in 1956.

Critics of the day hailed Hayakawa's Zen-influenced acting style. Hayakawa sought to bring muga, or the "absence of doing," to his performances, in direct contrast to the then-popular studied poses and broad gestures.

In the more than 20 films Hayakawa made with Paramount, he was typecast as the exotic lover or villain forced to relinquish the heroine in the last act--unless the heroine was his wife, Aoki. The titles of some of his films suggest Hayakawa's roles--The White Man's Laws, Hidden Pearls, and The Call of the East. Hayakawa played a South Sea Islander in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Bottle Imp. His wife appeared with him in Alien Souls, The Honorable Friend, The Soul of Sura Kan, Each to His Own Kind and Hashimura Fog.

Hayakawa is also credited with launching the career of Rudolph Valentino. His contract with Paramount expired in May 1918, but the studio asked him to star in The Sheik. Hayakawa turned down the picture in favor of starting his own company. The role went to the unknown Valentino, who rose to stardom overnight.

Hollywood's typecasting ultimately pushed Hayakawa to form his own production company. He borrowed $1 million from a former classmate at the University of Chicago and formed Haworth Pictures Corporation in 1918. Over the next three years he pumped out 23 films and netted $2 million a year. Hayakawa controlled the material--he produced, starred in, and contributed to the design, writing, editing, and directing of the films. His films influenced the way the American public viewed Asians.

In 1918 Hayakawa personally chose the highly popular American serial actress Marin Sais to appear opposite him in a series of film collaborations, the first being the 1918 racial drama The City of Dim Faces followed by His Birthright, released the same year and also starring Hayakawa's actress wife Tsuru Aoki. Hayakawa's collaboration with Sais ended with the 1919 film Bonds of Honor.

In The Jaguar's Claws, filmed in the Mojave Desert, Hayakawa played a Mexican bandit, and the film required 500 cowboys as extras. On the first night of filming, the extras drank all night and well into the next day. No work was being done, so Hayakawa challenged the group to a fight. Two men stepped forward. "The first one struck out at me. I seized his arm and sent him flying on his face along the rough ground. The second attempted to grapple and I was forced to flip him over my head and let him fall on his neck. The fall knocked him unconscious." Hayakawa then disarmed yet another cowboy. The extras returned to work, amused by the way the small man manhandled the big bruising cowboys.

The 1919 production, The Dragon Painter, starring his wife, is generally considered Hayakawa's best work from that era. It was based on a 1906 novel by Fenollosa who had lived in Japan with her husband. It is the story of a painter who searches for a dragon princess he believes was stolen from him in another life. He eventually finds her but loses his desire to paint. The story was set in Japan but was filmed mostly in Yosemite Valley.

This was Hayakawa's Hollywood heyday. Hayakawa was one of the highest paid Hollywood stars of his time, making over $5,000 a week in 1915, then $2 million a year through his own production company in 1920s. Hayakawa's popularity rivaled that of Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and John Barrymore with film audiences. He drove a gold-plated Pierce-Arrow. He entertained lavishly in his Hollywood castle, the scene of some of the film community's wildest parties. Just before prohibition took effect in 1920 he bought a carload of booze. Hayakawa once claimed that he owed his social success to his liquor supply.

A bad business deal forced Hayakawa to leave Hollywood in 1921. The next 15 years saw him performing in New York, France, England and Japan. In 1924 he made The Great Prince Chan and The Story of Su in London. In 1925 he wrote a novel, The Bandit Prince, and turned it into a short play. In 1930 he performed in a one-act play written especially for him, Samurai, for King George V of Great Britain and Queen Mary. He also became very popular in France thanks to the prevailing French fascination with anything Asian. In 1930 Hayakawa returned to Japan and produced a Japanese-language stage version of The Three Musketeers, and adopted two girls and one boy.

In one night during the peak of his success, he gambled away $1 million in Monte Carlo, shrugging off the loss while another Japanese gambler who lost a fortune committed suicide.

In the 1930s his career began to suffer from the rise of talkies, and a growing anti-Japanese sentiment. Hollywood deemed his gifts unsuited to the new talkies. Hayakawa's talking film debut came in 1931 in Daughter of the Dragon starring opposite Anna May Wong.

In 1937 Hayakawa went to France to act in Yoshiwara and found himself trapped for the balance of the war by the German occupation, separating him from his family. He made a few movies during those years, but supported himself mainly by selling his watercolors. He also joined the French underground and aided allied flyers during the war. In 1949, Humphrey Bogart's production company tracked Hayakawa down and offered him a role in Tokyo Joe. Before issuing a work permit, the American Consulate investigated Hayakawa's activities during the war. They found that he had in no way contributed to the German war effort. Hayakawa followed Tokyo Joe with Three Came Home, in which he played a real-life POW camp commander Lieutenant-Colonel Suga, before returning to France.

His post-war screen persona became rather fixed as the honorable villain, perhaps best exemplified in his role as Colonel Saito in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, which won the 1957 Academy Award for Best Picture. Hayakawa was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. He called this role the highlight of his career. Hayakawa's work lives on today in various forms. Some of his later films—The Geisha Boy (a pastiche of his River Kwai role), Tokyo Joe, Three Came Home and The Bridge on the River Kwai—are available on DVD. In 1989 a musical based on his life, Sessue, played in Tokyo.

In 1949, Hayakawa uttered a sentiment that often echoes in the hearts of today's Asian-American actors: “My one ambition is to play a hero.” In his autobiography, Zen Showed Me The Way, Hayakawa observes, “All my life has been a journey. But my journey differs from the journeys of most men.”

Available Films

The Tong Man (1919)

Around the World in 80 Minutes (1931)