Sessue Hayakawa could be the most famous Hollywood actor you've never heard of. During the 1910s, the silent film star was one of the best-paid performers in Hollywood, and his fame rivaled that of Charlie Chaplin. Many film historians recognize him as one of Hollywood's first major heartthrobs, as his popularity predated even that of Rudolph Valentino.
But despite his brooding good looks and acclaimed acting skills, Hayakawa's career – and life story – was anything but easy. Born in Chiba Prefecture, Japan in 1886, Hayakawa came to America after a ruptured eardrum and suicide attempt dashed his hopes of joining the Imperial Japanese Navy. He became interested in theater and was discovered by film producer Thomas H. Ince. In the mid-1910s, Hayakawa played the romantic lead in films such as The Cheat. He rapidly rose to stardom and became wealthy enough to purchase a castle-style mansion in Los Angeles.
As the first Asian-American leading man in Hollywood, Hayakawa fought against constantly being typecast in "forbidden lover" roles. In 1918, he formed his own production company, Haworth Pictures Corporation, which produced 23 films in just three years. But Hayakawa would leave Hollywood in 1922, most likely due to a combination of racial prejudice and business difficulties.
The amazing Sessue Hayakawa:
- Though his star status waned, Hayakawa's later life was no less fascinating. After leaving Hollywood he turned his attention to the theater, made films in Europe and Japan, founded a Zen temple and study hall, and wrote a novel.
- He was in France when World War II broke out and he remained there for the duration of the conflict, helping the French Resistance, according to some accounts.
- When he later returned to Hollywood, Hayakawa still dreamed of portraying the hero in mainstream films. However, this ambition was never realized, and he continued to be cast as the villain – though often an "honorable villain," as in his Oscar-nominated turn in Bridge Over the River Kwai. He was the first East Asian man to receive an Oscar nomination in an acting category.
- Hayakawa would devote the rest of his life to studying Zen Buddhism, becoming a Zen master.