His first screen role was as Capt. Pierre Thierry in the war drama Somewhere in France (1916) starring Louise Glaum and Howard C. Hickman. He was then living at 20 Horizon Avenue in Venice, California, where he registered to vote. He appeared in five movies released in 1917, including his role as Dillon in the drama The Little Brother starring Enid Bennett and William Garwood. He was then living at 115 Dudley Avenue in Venice, where he registered for the draft of World War I. He went on to serve as an ensign in the U.S. Navy.
Appearing in only one movie released in 1918, as Stuart Morley in the comedy/drama The Hired Man starring Charles Ray and Charles K. French, he was then absent from the screen for over a year due to the war. In 1920, he lived at 1309 Ocean Front in Santa Monica, and four of his movies were released that year.
He was elevated to star status by independent producers Phil Goldstone and Ben F. Wilson. His screen name, taken from that of Douglas Fairbanks, whose real surname happened to be the same as his, came about with the 1920 release of his starring role in Goldstone's western Hearts of the West opposite Frances Conrad.
Other movies of Fairbanks include the western The Clean-Up (1922); the western Down by the Rio Grande co-starring Dorothy Revier, the drama A Fight for Honor co-starring Eva Novak, in which Fairbanks played the role as Jack Adams, the Columbia Pictures auto racing action/drama Racing for Life co-starring Eva Novak, in which Fairbanks played the role as Jack Grant, and the western Border Women co-starring Dorothy Revier, in which Fairbanks played Big Boy Merritt, (all released in 1924); the serial Vanishing Millions co-starring Vivian Rich, in which Fairbanks played Dave Merrill, and the action Flying High co-starring Alice Calhoun, in which Fairbanks played Roy Cummins, (both released in 1926); the crime/drama One Chance in a Million co-starring Viora Daniel, in which Fairbanks played Jerry Blaine, and the action/adventure The Down Grade co-starring Alice Calhoun, in which Fairbanks played Ted Lansing, (both released in 1927); and the MGM wagon train western Wyoming (1928) with Tim McCoy and Dorothy Sebastian, and directed by W.S. Van Dyke, in which Fairbanks played Buffalo Bill Cody.