ASIAN AMERICAN PERSONALITIES
THE 130 MOST INSPIRING ASIAN AMERICANS
OF ALL TIME
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his was Hayakawa's Hollywood heyday. His popularity rivaled that of
Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore. He drove a gold-plated Pierce-Arrow .
He entertained lavishly in 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 saw him performing 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, for the King and Queen
of England. He also became very popular in France thanks to the prevailing
French fascination with anything Asian. In 1930 Hayakawa returned to
Japan and produced a Japanese-language stage version of The Three
Muskateers, and adopted two girls and one boy.
In the 1930s his career began to suffer from the rise of talkies, movies with
sound, and a growing anti-Japanese sentiment. Hollywood deemed his
gifts unsuited to the new talkies. 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 occuopation. He
made a few movies during those years, but supported himself mainly by
selling his watercolors. He had also joined the French underground and aided
allied flyers during the war. From 1937 Hayakawa was separated
from his family until 1949 when Humphrey Bogart's production company
tracked him down and offered him a role in Tokyo Joe. Before issuing
a work permit, the American Consulate investigated Hayakawa's activities
during the war. They found that he had in no way contributed to the German
war effort. Hayakawa followed Joe with Three Came
Home before returning to France.
His post-war screen persona remain relatively fixed as the honorable
villain, perhaps 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 was nominated for a supporting actor category.
He called this role the highlight of his career.
Hayakawa's wife died in 1961. By then he had became a Zen priest in
and had returned to Japan. There he continued acting,
appearing in The Daydreamer in 1966. He died on November 23,
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 today in various forms. Some of his later films--
Geisha Boy, Tokyo Joe, Three Came Home and The Bridge on the
River Kwai-- are available on video. In 1989 a musical based on his life,
Sessue, played in Tokyo.
"My one ambition is to play a hero." Sound like a sentiment
echoing in the hearts of today's Asian American actors?. Sessue Hayakawa
said it back in 1949.
In his autobiography, Zen Showed Me The Way, Hayakawa observes,
"All my life has been a journey. But my journey differs from the journeys
of most men." How true. The highwater mark left by this beautiful and
inspired man has yet been equaled, even in this supposedly
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"My one ambition is to play a hero."
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