ayakawa 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. That was when he first assumed the name Sessue
Hayakawa. One of the productions Hayakawa staged was called The
Typhoon. A movie producer named
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 called the absurdly high fee of $500 a week. Ince agreed to pay it.
The Typhoon was filmed in 1914. Meanwhile, on May 1 of that year
Hayakawa met and married Tsuru Aoki, a Hollywood star in her own right
who had descended from a family of performers. The Typhoon was a
hit. 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
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 Mae.
With this role Hayakawa's dashing good looks and acting styl 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.
Many of Hollywood's leading stars were Hayakawa's friend. He is even
credited with launching the career of Rudolph Valentino.
Hayakawa's 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 overnight stardom.
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 Hayworth
Films in 1918, with offices on the corner of Sunset and Hollywood
Boulevards. Over the next three years he pumped out 23 films and
netted $2 million a year. Hayakawa controlled his 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
In The Jaguar's Claws , filmed in the Mojave Desert, Hayakawa played
.a Mexican bandit. He needed 500 cowboys as extras. On the first night of
filming, the extras got drunk all night well into the next day. No work was
being done. 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.