442: An Intro to Hollywood’s Original Heartthrob

Sessue Hayakawa walked so Daniel Dae Kim and Henry Golding could run

Words by Samantha Pak

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

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Before Daniel Dae Kim, Idris Elba or white actors named Chris, there was Sessue Hayakawa (1886-1973)—one of Hollywood’s first male sex symbols.

Born Kintaro Hayakawa in Chiba Prefecture, Japan, Hayakawa rose to fame in the 1910s and 1920s amid the silent film era to become the first actor of Asian descent to achieve leading man status. Hayakawa was as famous as Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks and was one of the highest-paid actors at the time, earning more than $3,500 (about $54,500 today) a week at the peak of his career. And in 1957, Hayakawa became the first Asian performer to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Bridge on the River Kwai.

It was Hayakawa’s second film, 1915’s The Cheat, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, that launched the actor’s career. Playing the love interest of white actress Fannie Ward, Hayakawa immediately became a romantic idol for millions of American women of all races. However, due to anti-miscegenation laws at the time fobidding portrayals of interracial romances, the actor—sometimes described as broodingly handsome—rarely got the girl.

Despite his fame and heartthrob status, these were the early days of Hollywood and Hayakawa was often typecast as a villain or forbidden lover—especially as anti-Japanese sentiments rose from the first and second World Wars. In addition, Hayakawa’s early films were not popular in Japan because many felt his roles were insulting. He wasn’t thrilled about the roles he was limited to either. So in 1918, he started Haworth Pictures Corporation, the first-ever Asian-owned production company.

Through the end of the decade, the company produced Asian-themed films starring Hayakawa and his wife Tsuru Aoki—including The Dragon Painter in 1919, in which Hayakawa does end up getting the girl.

The next few decades of Hayakawa’s career included his leaving and returning to Hollywood a number of times. While he was away, he performed on stage in Japan and Europe as well as in French films, gaining international recognition. Hayakawa’s final return to Hollywood came after the end of World War II. These final years of his career also included his Oscar-nominated role as Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Hayakawa retired from acting in 1966, spending the end of his life in Tokyo, where he died on Nov. 23, 1973 from a cerebral thrombosis, complicated by pneumonia.

Published on November 22, 2022

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.