If you know the name Sessue Hayakawa then you are either an American woman who was in the prime of life in the 1920s or a huge film fan. Hayakawa is the leading man that never was. Despite being a talented actor who was admired by many for his good looks and unique skills, he never found his rightful place in Hollywood.
Hayakawa was discovered in a small theatre in LA by a famous film producer, Thomas Ince. Ince was immediately obsessed with Hayakawa after witnessing his skills and wanted him to be a star of silent film. After some negotiations, Hayakawa accepted and immediately became a star of the big screen. His first film, The Typhoon, was a huge success with Hayakawa, in particular, being awarded generous praise for his acting.
His acting skills and good looks meant that he starred in many movies in the following years. He quickly became a sex symbol at the time with the majority of his audience, young women who would scream every time he came on the stage. Hayakawa was different from all other actors at the time, not just because of his Japanese ethnicity but because of his acting approach. At that time in silent film, everyone overacted, while Hayakawa was far more subdued.
Despite being adored by audiences, Hayakawa was never allowed to play the leading man. At that time relations between white women and other nationalities were not readily accepted. To put Hayakawa on screen with a white woman would have been too much. This meant that he was often cast as the villain in movies and found it increasingly frustrating. As the years went on and the 1930s came, tensions between Americans and the Japanese increased. Hayakawa found there were less and less suitable jobs for him.
His greatest role was playing a Japenese POW commander in The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which he received a nomination for an academy award. After years of acting Hayakawa returned to Japan in search of zen. He became an ordained priest and lived out a quiet and tranquil life away from the big screen.