His popularity, sex appeal, and extravagant lifestyle (e.g., his wild parties and his gold-plated Pierce-Arrow) may have fed tension within segments of American society and led to discriminatory stereotypes and the desexualization of Asian men in American productions, something that continues to today in Modern Hollywood, as exemplified by the controversial character of I.Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast At Tiffany's. Hayakawa refused to adopt the negative stereotypes, he abandoned Hollywood for European cinema, and there he was treated equally. Hayakawa's friendships with American actors led him to return to Hollywood. He was one of the highest-paid stars of his time, earning $5,000 per week in 1915, and $2 million per year through his own production company during the 1920s. He starred in over eighty movies, and two of his films stand in the U.S. National Film Registry.
Of his English-language films, Hayakawa is probably best known for his role as Colonel Saito in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which he received a nomination for Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1957. He also appeared in the 1950 film Three Came Home and as Kuala in Disney's 'Swiss Family Robinson' in 1960.
In addition to his film acting career, Hayakawa was a theatre actor, film and theatre producer, film director, screenwriter, novelist martial artist, and a Zen master.