Fascinating People in History #3
Alternative Title: Adventures in the Arts
Sessue Hayakawa- The Actor You’ve Never Heard of but Really Should Have
Sessue Hayakawa, born Kintaro Hayakawa, was born and raised in Japan. After failing a test to become a navy officer due to a ruptured eardrum, he attempted seppuku (ritual suicide with a samarai sword) instead of dealing with the shame. After he was saved at the last moment (guys this is all real), he went to America to study economics.
He quit school and just by chance happened across a Japanese theatre. He did a play which was then offered to become a silent movie. Sessue wanted to have a reason to go back to school so he told the director of the film that he would do it for $500 (which was a huge number for an unknown actor at the time) trying to get the director to back down, but he accepted instead.
After the movie, he become one of the first contracted member of what would become Paramount Pictures.
He was in many successful movies and become very well-paid. At the height of his fame, he was as popular as Charlie Chaplin, but amazingly, his name is never mentioned today. He was one of the highest paid actors of his time, earning $2 million per year from his own production company.
After leaving the US due to racism in the film industry, he achieved fame in the UK and France. When he did return to the US, his career took a hit due to the increasing anti-Japanese sentiments and emergence of “talkies”. He went to France again to release a play but got trapped in Paris during the 1940s German occupation.
Not knowing what to do, Sessue offered his services to the French Resistance and helped Allied flyers in the war. He finally returned to the States after being requested for a movie in 1949.
He worked less after the war but received an Oscar nomination in 1957. He died at the age of 84.
So if this all didn’t convince you that Sessue is pretty much the coolest guy ever, here are some more impressive fun facts:
1.) He was the first and remains today one of the very few Asian actors to have gained stardom in the US and UK.
2.) He was basically Gatsby. He was known for huge extravagant parties and his gold-plated Pierce-Arrow and if that’s not hella cool in the 20s I don’t know what is.
3.) In college, he was the quarterback of the football team. He was once penalized for using jujitsu to bring down an opponent.
4.) He was known as an international heartthrob in a time when, lets be real, racism was so heavy that only white men ever got fame.
5.) When he was denied leading roles and only offered racist, stereotypical “villain” roles, he threatened to up and leave the US to find stardom in Europe, which he did.
6.) Despite strict anti-mescegenation (or what we now call anti-interracial relationships) laws in films, he starred in films opposite of white actresses.
7.) He dearly loved his wife Tsuru Aoki, who he was married to for fifty years until her death. While in Europe, they adopted western children and gave them Japanese names.
8.) He didn’t limit himself to acting; he was a director, screenwriter, novelist, martial artist, member of the French Resistance, and oh yeah, a Zen master.
Also, he was broodingly gorgeous.