Sessue Hayakawa: Hollywood’s Forgotten Leading Man


During Hollywood’s silent screen era Japanese screen star Sessue Hayakawa rivaled Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and John Barrymore in popularity with film audiences. Today, a little known about the Japanese actor who starred in film after film for many years. During that time Hayakawa was one of the highest paid Hollywood stars, earning more than $5,000 a week. In 1915, that was the equivalent to $2 million a year. He did this through producing films with his own production company. Hayakawa was handsome and flamboyant. He was equally famous for throwing Hollywood’s most extravagant, and legendary parties.

Family Life

Sessue Hayakawa was born on June 10th, 1889 in Chiba, Japan. The future matinee idol was the second eldest son of the provincial governor of Chiba. From early on Hayakawa was groomed for a career as a naval officer. But in 1907, at 17, he took a schoolmate’s dare to swim to the bottom of a lagoon and ruptured an eardrum. At the time he was studying at the Naval Academy in Etajima, but his imperfect health resulted in failing the navy’s rigorous physical. His father became depressed, humiliated and shamed. Consequently, the father-son relationship suffered.

It is held that the strained relationship between the Kintaro’s drove Hayakawa when he was 18-years-old to commit hara-kiri. Hayakawa entered a garden shed on his family property, locked his favorite dog outside, and spread a white sheet on the ground. Hayakawa stabbed himself in the abdomen more than 30 times. The dog’s barking alerted Hayakawa’s family, and his father smashed through the shed door with an axe in time to save his son’s life.

Hayakawa’s father decided that since he couldn’t become a naval officer, he would become a banker. Hayakawa was enrolled at the University of Chicago to study political economics. While at the university he would become the quarterback of the football team. He was once penalized for using jujitsu while tackling an opponent.

Hollywood Beckons

Hayakawa took a vacation in Los Angeles, and ended up going to The Japanese Playhouse in Little Tokyo. This experience led to him getting into acting and staging plays. That was when he first assumed the name Sessue Hayakawa, dropping the name Kintaro. One production Hayakawa staged was, The Typhoon. A movie producer named Thomas Ince saw the production, and offered to turn it into a silent movie using all of the original cast. But Hayakawa was to return to the University of Chicago, and to discourage Ince, asked for the absurd fee of $500 a week. Ince agreed to pay, and the film went into production in 1914. On May 1st of the same year The Typhoon was produced, Hayakawa met and married Tsuru Aoki, a Hollywood star in her own right who had descended from a family of performers. The Typhoon became a huge hit, turning Hayakawa into an overnight sensation. Hayakawa made two more films with Ince, The Wrath of the Gods with Aoki as co-star, and The Sacrifice, before signing with the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company which would later become Paramount Pictures.

In his second film for Paramount, The Cheat, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, Hayakawa played a Japanese art dealer who burned a brand on the shoulder of leading lady Fannie Mae. Hayakawa’s dashing good looks and acting style resulted in him becoming an instant matinee idol. By 1915 his salary soared to over $5,000 a week. By 1917 he built a castle on the corner of Franklin Avenue, and Argyle Street which was a Hollywood landmark until it was torn down in 1956.

Hayakawa made more than twenty films with Paramount, typecast as the exotic lover or villain forced to relinquish the heroine in the last act, that is, unless the heroine was his wife, Aoki. The titles of some of his films type casted Hayakawa, including 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.

Many of Hollywood’s leading stars were Hayakawa’s friend. He is credited with launching the career of Rudolph Valentino. Hayakawa’s contract with Paramount expired in May, 1918. Even so, the studio asked him to star in, The Sheik. Hayakawa turned down the picture in favor of starting his own company. Valentino’s role in, The Sheik made him an overnight star.

Hollywood’s typecasting pushed Hayakawa to form his own production company. He borrowed $1 million from a former classmate at the University of Chicago, and in 1918, formed Hayworth Films with a studio on the corner of Sunset, and Hollywood Boulevard. Over the next three years he starred in, and produced twenty-three films, netting 2 million a year. Hayakawa controlled all aspects of production. He produced, starred in, and contributed to the design, writing, editing, and directing of each film. His films also influenced the way Americans viewed Asians.

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 exaggerated poses and broad gestures.

In, The Jaguar’s Claws, which was filmed in the Mojave Desert, Hayakawa played a Mexican bandit. He hired 500 cowboys as extras. On the first night of filming, the extras got drunk, well into the next day. No work was being done. Hayakawa challenged the men to a fight. Two 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 disarmed yet another cowboy. After that, the extras returned to work, amused by the way the “small man” manhandled the big bruising cowboys.

The 1919 production of, The Dragon Painter, starred Hayakawa’s wife. This film is considered Hayakawa’s best work from that era. The Dragon Painter was based on a 1906 novel by Mary McNeil Fenollosa who had lived in Japan with her husband. The Dragon Painter 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.

Hayakawa live during Hollywood’s heyday. His popularity rivaled that of Douglas Fairbanks, and John Barrymore. Hayakawa drove a gold-plated Pierce-Arrow, and entertained lavishly at 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 Hayakawa performed 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. Samurai was performed for the King and Queen of England. By this time, Hayakawa became extremely popular in France thanks to the prevailing French fascination with Asian culture. In 1930 Hayakawa returned to Japan and produced a Japanese-language stage version of The Three Musketeers. While in Japan, he adopted two girls and one boy.

Another Continent To Conquer

By the 1930s Hayakawa’s popularity began to wane due to the rise of talkies, movies with sound. There was also a nationwide growing anti-Japanese sentiment.

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. He made a few movies during those years, but supported himself mainly by selling watercolor paintings.

From 1937 until 1949, Hayakawa remained separated from his family. Humphrey Bogart’s production company tracked him down, and offered Hayakawa a role in Tokio Joe. Hayakawa followed, Tokio Joe, with, Three Came Home, before returning to France.

In 1949, no doubt due to hostilities toward the Japanese that remained after WWII, Hayakawa said, ”My one ambition is to play a hero.”

Hayakawa’s post-war screen persona remained fixed as the honorable villain, best exemplified in his role as Colonel Saito in, The Bridge On The River Kwai, which won the 1957 Academy Award for best picture. Hayakawa’s performance received a nomination for a supporting actor category. Hayakawa called this role the highlight of his career.

In 1960, Hayakawa starred in Swiss Family Robinson, an American adventure film starring John Mills, Dorothy McGuire, James MacArthur, Janet Munro, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran. The film told a tale of a shipwrecked family that had to build an island home. The film was loosely based on the 1812 novel Der Schweizerische Robinson, by Johann David Wyss. The film was directed by Ken Annakin and shot in Tobago and Pinewood Studios outside London. The film was a huge commercial success. Swiss Family Robinson was the first widescreen Disney film shot with Panavision lenses.

Hayakawa’s wife died in 1961. By then he had become a Zen priest, and returned to Japan. While in Japan he continued acting, appearing in, The Daydreamer, in 1966.

During his career, Hayakawa was an actor, producer, author, martial artist and an ordained Zen monk. He starred in over 80 films, and achieved stardom on three continents. Hayakawa was Paramount’s first choice for the leading role in, The Sheik, which launched Rudolph Valentino’s career in 1918. In 1957, he was nominated for an academy-award.


Hayakawa died on November 23rd, in 1973 from a blood clot in the brain complicated by pneumonia. He was survived by his adopted son Yukio, an engineer, and two daughters, Yoshiko, an actress, and Fujiko, a dancer.

Hayakawa’s work lives on in various forms. Some of his later films, Geisha Boy, Tokio Joe, Three Came Home, and The Bridge On The River Kwai remain popular films. In 1989 a musical based on Hayakawa’s life, Sessue, played in Tokyo.

In his autobiography, Zen Showed Me The Way, Hayakawa wrote, “All my life has been a journey. But my journey differs from the journeys of most men.”


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