Sessue Hayakawa (born Kintaro Hayakawa) was born in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture, Japan in 1886. As a teenager, he was a student in the naval academy to become a Japanese naval officer, and at the age of 15, he attempted suicide. Upon recovery, he came to the US to study economics at the University of Chicago, and after graduation, he discovered the Japanese Theatre in Little Tokyo and fell in love with acting. While performing here, he was discovered by film producer Thomas H. Ince, who turned the production, The Typhoon (1914), into a silent film that was a Hollywood hit and launched Hayakawa’s career. He signed with Famous Players-Lasky (now Paramount Pictures) and starred as the romantic lead opposite a white actress in The Cheat (1915). He won over female viewers (even white women) with his devilishly handsome looks and acting talent and soon became Hollywood’s most sought-after lead actor for romantic dramas in the 1910s and 1920s, as well as a sex symbol in America.
Hayakawa became so successful in mainstream cinema that he obtained the means to start his own production company (after becoming tired of being repeatedly typecast) called Haworth Pictures Corporation in 1918, and produced 23 films that garnered him $2 million per year, which made him one of the highest paid stars of the time. In 1922, he left Hollywood and performed in Japanese and European cinema, gaining international acclaim. He then starred in movies with sound, starring opposite stars like Anna May Wong, and in 1937, while in France performing a show, World War II broke out and he was trapped in the country, where he joined the French Allied Resistance. He returned to the US in 1949 and was typecast into“honorable villain” or “forbidden lover” roles (for which he did gain Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations).
Throughout his career (starring in 80 films), Hayakawa stood at a perplexing and contradictory position- because he was Japanese, he could never become an American citizen (due to naturalization laws of the time), and he suffered professionally from fears of the Yellow Peril felt by many Americans. Directors typecasted him as the villain or exotic lover, which is why he started his own production company, to change the way Asians are portrayed on screen. After WWII, the Production Code of 1930 prohibited him from portraying a romantic relationship with white actresses, which further forced him into these stereotypical roles. However, he was simultaneously a top leading actor in American mainstream films consumed by white Americans, as well as a sex symbol, which sharply contrasts the non-sexual, timid stereotypical representation of Asian men later in media. He reached the fame and popularity of white contemporaries like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks at the time, yet he is completely left out of film history and most media studies. Hayakawa is an incredibly important figure in not just Asian American film history, but mainstream Hollywood history as well.