Sessue Hayakawa



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 enlightened age.

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"My one ambition is to play a hero."

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