Considering how poorly Asian men are portrayed in Hollywood, I was genuinely surprised to learn about Sessue Hayakawa, a Japanese actor who became one of the biggest stars during the American silent era of the 1910s.
He became one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols after starring in the film, The Cheat (1915) in which he plays a cruel villain (there’s a scene in which he literally brands a woman). Despite his portrayal, Hayakawa became extremely popular with American women for his “broodingly handsome” good looks. At one point, he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood (making over $3,500 a week), and his fame was on par with that of Charlie Chaplin.
Although, Hayakawa was highly sought after during the 1910s and early 1920s, he became disillusioned by constantly being typecast for the same roles. He decided to start his own production company to fight Asian stereotypes and ended up producing 23 films in a span of three years. However, he had to scrap his company after getting into an argument with a distributor who called him a racial slur.
By the 1930s, Hollywood had set strict moral guidelines called the Hays Code which prohibited interracial love to be portrayed on screen. As a result, Hayakawa continued to be cast as either a villain or a “forbidden lover” since most of his costars were white women.
In 1937, Hayakawa went to France to star in a French film, but ended up being trapped in the country when World War 2 broke out. He sold watercolor paintings to financially support himself and joined the French resistance to help fight the Germans.
In 1949, Hayakawa—upon reflecting on his career—mentioned, “My one ambition is to play a hero”.
He never really got that chance but did end up being nominated for best supporting actor for his role in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) in which he plays an “honorable villain” in charge of a Japanese prison camp in Thailand.
Upon retirement, Hayakawa became a Zen master and dedicated his life to Zen Buddhism. He died at the age of 87 in 1973.
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