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December 4, 2020

Sessue Hayakawa: One of the First Male Sex Symbols of Hollywood

Born 1886 in Minamibōsō, Chiba, Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood during the silent film era of the 1910s and early 1920s. He was the first actor of Asian descent to achieve stardom as a leading man in the United States and Europe. His “broodingly handsome” good looks and typecasting as a sexually dominant villain made him a heartthrob among American women during a time of racial discrimination, and he became one of the first male sex symbols of Hollywood.

Hayakawa made his breakthrough in The Cheat (1915), and thereafter became famous for his roles as a forbidden lover. He was a highly paid star of his time, earning $3,500 a week in 1919 and $2 million through his own production company from 1918 to 1920.

Because of rising anti-Japanese sentiment and business difficulties, Hayakawa left Hollywood in 1922 and performed on Broadway and in Japan and Europe for many years before making his Hollywood comeback in Daughter of the Dragon (1931).

Of his talkies, Hayakawa is probably best known for his role as Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), for which he earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Hayakawa starred in over 80 feature films, and three of his films (The Cheat, The Dragon Painter, and The Bridge on the River Kwai) stand in the United States National Film Registry.

Hayakawa retired from film in 1966. He died in Tokyo in 1973 from a cerebral thrombosis, complicated by pneumonia at the age of 87. For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Hayakawa was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1645 Vine Street, in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California.

Take a look at these vintage photos to see handsome portrait of Sessue Hayakawa in the 1910s and 1920s.


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