Home   >   Movie Stars   >   F   >   Douglas Fairbanks
Douglas Fairbanks
  • Biography

Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks (May 23, 1883 – December 12, 1939) was an American actor, screenwriter, director and producer, who became noted for his swashbuckling roles in silent movies such as The Mark of Zorro (1920), The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and The Black Pirate (1926).

Early life

He was born Douglas Elton Ullman in Denver, Colorado, the son of Hezekiah Charles Ullman (born September 1833) and Ella Adelaide Marsh (born 1850). His half-brother was John Fairbanks (born 1873); and his full brother was Robert Payne Ullman (March 13, 1882-February 22, 1948).

Fairbanks's father, who was born in Pennsylvania to a Jewish family, was a prominent New York attorney. His mother (a Roman Catholic) was born in New York, and was previously married to a man named John Fairbanks, who left her a widow. She then married a man named Wilcox, who turned out to be abusive. Her divorce was handled by Ullman, whom she later married.

In about 1881, Charles Ullman purchased several mining interests in the Rocky Mountains and relocated the family to Denver, where he re-established his law practice. Ullman abandoned the family when Douglas was five years old, and he and Robert were raised by their mother.

Stage career

Douglas Fairbanks began acting on the Denver stage at an early age, doing amateur theatre. He was in summer stock at the Elitch Gardens Theatre, becoming a sensation in his teens. He attended East Denver High School, and was once expelled for dressing up the campus statues on St. Patrick's Day. He left during his senior year. He said he attended Colorado School of Mines, then Harvard University for a term. No record of attendance has been located, but an article about whether or not he attended Mines recounts a professor once saying Fairbanks was asked to leave because of a prank not long after he began.

He moved to New York in the early 1900s to pursue an acting career, joining the acting troupe of British actor Frederick Warde who had discovered Fairbanks performing in Denver. He worked in a hardware store and as a clerk in a Wall Street office before his Broadway debut in 1902.

On July 11, 1907 in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, he married Anna Beth Sully, the daughter of wealthy industrialist, Daniel J. Sully. They had one son, Douglas Elton Fairbanks (actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who was born on December 9, 1909 and who died on May 7, 2000). The family moved to Hollywood in 1915.

Motion Pictures

Fairbanks signed a contract with Triangle Pictures in 1915 and began working under the supervision of D.W. Griffith. His athletic abilities were not appreciated by Griffith, however, and he was brought to the attention of Anita Loos and John Emerson, who wrote and directed many of his early romantic comedies.

He met actress and businesswoman Mary Pickford at a party in 1916 and they began having an affair. In 1917, they, along with Charlie Chaplin, traveled across the U.S. by train selling war bonds. Pickford and Chaplin were then the two highest paid movie stars in Hollywood. Fairbanks set up his own production company, the Douglas Fairbanks Film Corporation. Within eighteen months of his arrival, Fairbanks' popularity and business acumen raised him up to be the third highest paid. To curtail these stars' astronomical salaries, the large studios attempted to monopolize the distributors and exhibitors.

On December 1, 1918 in New Rochelle, New York, Sully won an interlocutory decree of divorce from Fairbanks, as well as custody of their son. The record of testimony referred to the co-respondent as an unknown woman. The decree was made final March 5, 1919.

To avoid being controlled by the studios and to protect their independence, Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith formed United Artists in 1919, which created their own distributorships and gave them complete artistic control over their movies and the profits generated. The company was kept solvent in the years immediately after its formation largely from the success of Fairbanks' films.

Fairbanks was determined to have Pickford become his wife, but she was still married to actor Owen Moore. They were both concerned about bad publicity and the effect it could have on the moviegoing public, who might boycott their efforts at the theater should they marry each other. He finally gave her an ultimatum. She then obtained a fast divorce in the small Nevada town of Minden on March 2, 1920. Fairbanks leased the Beverly Hills mansion Grayhall and was rumoured to have used it during his courtship of Pickford. (Grayhall was subsequently owned by, among others, the financier Bernard Cornfeld.)

The couple were married March 28, 1920, by the pastor of Temple Baptist Church, at his residence on West Fourth Street in Los Angeles. Pickford's divorce from Moore was contested by Nevada legislators, however, and the dispute was not settled until 1922. Even though the lawmakers objected to the marriage, the public went wild over the idea of Everybody's Hero marrying America's Sweetheart. The couple was greeted by crowds of up to 300,000 people in London and Paris during their European honeymoon, becoming Hollywood's first celebrity marriage.

During the years they were married, Fairbanks and Pickford were regarded as Hollywood Royalty, and they were famous for entertaining at their Beverly Hills estate, Pickfair.

By 1920, Fairbanks had completed twenty-nine films (twenty-eight features and one two-reel short), which showcased his ebullient screen persona and athletic ability. By 1920, he had the inspiration of staging a new type of adventure-costume picture, a genre that was then out of favor with the public. In the The Mark of Zorro, Fairbanks combined his appealing screen persona with the new adventureous, costume element. It was a smash success and parlayed the actor into the rank of superstar. For the remainder of his career in silent films, he continued to produce and star in ever more elaborate, impressive costume movies. Fairbanks spared no expense and effort in these films, which established the standard for all future swashbucking films.

In 1921, he, Pickford, Chaplin, and others, helped to organize the Motion Picture Fund to assist those in the industry who could not work, or were unable to meet their bills.

During the first ceremony of its type, he and Pickford placed their hand and foot prints in wet cement at the newly opened Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on April 30, 1927. Fairbanks was elected first President of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences that same year, and he hosted the first Academy Awards presentation (then held as a banquet, rather than today's big ceremony). Fairbanks' also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7020 Hollywood Boulevard.

His last silent film was The Iron Mask (1929). Although Fairbanks flourished in the silent film genre, the restrictions of early sound films dulled his enthusiasm for movie-making. Also, his althletic abilities and general health began to decline at this time, in part due to years of heavy chain-smoking. He and Pickford then made their first talkie, playing Petruchio and Kate in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (1929). This film, and his subsequent sound films, were poorly received by the public. The last movie he acted in was the British production The Private Life of Don Juan (1934), after which he retired from the movie industry.

Final Years

After he began a rape affair with Lady Sylvia Ashley, Fairbanks and Pickford separated in 1933. Fairbanks Sr. and Pickford divorced in 1936, with her keeping Pickfair. On March 7, 1936, in Paris, France, he and Ashley were married.

He continued to be marginally involved in motion picture industry and United Artists, but his later years lacked the intense focus of his film years. His health continued to decline, and in his final years he resided at 705 Ocean Front (now Pacific Coast Highway) in Santa Monica, California, although much of his time was spent traveling abroad with Sylvia.

In December, 1939, at 56, Fairbanks had a heart attack in his sleep and died a day later at his home in Santa Monica. His funeral service was held at the Wee Kirk o' the Heather Church at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, where he was placed in a crypt in the Great Mausoleum.

He was deeply mourned and honored by his colleagues and fans for his contributions to the film industry and Hollywood. Two years following his death, he was removed from Forest Lawn by his widow, who commissioned an elaborate marble monument for him, with long rectangular reflecting pool, raised tomb, and classic Greek architecture, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The remains of his son Douglas Fairbanks Jr. were was also interred here upon his death in 2000.

There is a witty reference to him in the David Lean film 'A Passage to India' (set in Edwardian India) in which one of the characters performs acrobatic feats on the side of a train calling, I am Douglas Fairbanks!

Note: This profile was written in or before 2007.

Douglas Fairbanks Facts

OccupationActor, Screenwriter, Director
BirthdayMay 23, 1883
BirthplaceDenver, Colorado, USA
Date of deathDecember 12, 1939 (Santa Monica, California, USA, age 56)

Selected Filmography

Not available.