Handsome, talented and box-office magic, Sessue Hayakawa got the scripts, the lifestyle and the paycheck due a star of the silent screen.

But he almost never got the girl.As an Asian playing opposite Anglo heroines - and for a white audience - Hayakawa's celluloid courtship could go only so far, typically the final reel, before he conveniently was killed off, leaving the heroine to the solace of a paler suitor.

"Every other plot contrivance leads to boy-gets-girl. This contrivance would lead to boy-does-not-get-girl," said Hayakawa scholar Stephen Gong, general manager of the Pacific Film Archive and a lecturer in the Department of Asian-American studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

Still, that limitation didn't stop Hayakawa from being one of the most successful actors in early Hollywood, a film pioneer who broke racial barriers while giving audiences a glimpse into Japanese culture.

In later years, Hayakawa had a second Hollywood career, earning an Academy Award nomination for his role as the camp commandant in "The Bridge Over the River Kwai."

But his most important contribution came in those early films, when "every decision he made, every action he took was a brand-new one," says Gong.

Even before his movie career, Hayakawa was full of surprises.

As a student at the University of Chicago, the 130-pound Hayakawa surprised the football team by using jujitsu to topple beefy linemen.

He intended to return to Japan after graduation, but shortly before sailing happened across a performance by Japanese players in the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles. On an impulse, he joined the group. There, he drew the attention of film producer Thomas Ince, for whom he appeared in two features.

In 1915, Hayawaka was hired away by hot young director Cecil B. De Mille.

His next movie, "The Cheat," was a breakthrough. Hayakawa played a unsavory character; his most famous scene came when he branded the shoulder of female lead Fannie Ward, but he was a big hit with female moviegoers thrilled by his dangerous allure.

In real life, Hayakawa was married to actress Tsuru Aoki, incidentally the only romantic lead with whom he survived to the closing credits.

In 1919, Hayakawa blazed another trail when he formed his own production company. Over the next three years, 23 features were released. Many followed conventional story lines. But some, such as 1919's "The Dragon Painter," were artistic achievements that hold up well against modern efforts.

In the movie, directed by William Worthington and shot in the Yosemite Valley, Hayakawa starred opposite his wife as a brilliant but wild painter, Tatsu, who is searching for a princess he believes was stolen from him in a previous life.

He is taken up by a master painter looking for a protege, comes to believe the man's daughter is his lost love and marries her. That stymies his talent, creating a spiritual struggle between love and art.

"The Dragon Painter" is a masterful blend of lyricism and entertainment.

There is humor, such as when his mentor asks Tatsu why, since he is known as the dragon painter, there is no sign of the mythical beast in a picture of a mountain lake. The dragon is under the lake, Tatsu replies, in true Zen style.

And there is pathos, as the bewildered Tatsu is defeated by blank canvasses.

There is, however, no hint of the typical Asian portrayal as villain or coolie that persisted in Hollywood for decades, says Paul Mayeda Berges of the National Asian American Telecommunications Association.

"For us, Sessue Hayakawa is an extremely important figure," he said.

Gong, who has been studying Hayakawa for almost 20 years, discovered "The Dragon Painter" in the late 1970s. He found it in France, where Hayawaka worked during World War II, and spent years translating the titles back into English and painstakingly restoring the print. The finished product, backed by a new score by composer Mark Izu, recently was presented at San Francisco's Castro Theater.

Three years after "The Dragon Painter," Hayakawa abruptly left Hollywood for a variety of reasons, many of which probably had to do with growing anti-Japanese feeling, Gong said.

His second movie career came after World War II, when he returned to play what Gong calls the "honorable bad guy," men torn between decency and duty such as the POW commanders in "Three Came Home" and "The Bridge Over the River Kwai."

After his wife died in 1966, Hayakawa returned to Japan, where he was ordained a Zen priest. He died in 1973.

Two decades later, says Gong, Hayakawa's film legacy remains fresh.

"I think we are at a new place in this country and in the world in dealing with diversity and in dealing with difference," he said. "The power and importance of motion pictures in telling us about one another adds to the sense of rediscovering new lessons in Hayakawa's career."