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 films such as The Black Pirate (1926). At one point, Fairbanks was also known as "The King of Hollywood"
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 moved 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 brought up by their mother.
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.
Fairbanks signed a contract with Triangle Pictures in 1915 and began working under the supervision of D.W. Griffith. His first film was titled The Lamb, and in the film, he debuted his remarkable athletic abilities that would gain wide attention among theatre audiences. 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. In 1916, Fairbanks established his own company, and would soon get a job at Paramount. By 1918, Fairbanks was Hollywood's most popular actor.
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, with whom he had a close friendship, travelled across the U.S. by train selling war bonds. Pickford and Chaplin were then the two highest paid film 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 monopolise 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 films 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 married on 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 were 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. Sir Harry Lauder's nephew, Matt Lauder, jr., (1899-1972), a professional golfer who then lived at Eagle Rock, Los Angeles, California, taught Fairbanks to play golf.
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 favour with the public; Fairbanks had previously been a comic in his other films. 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 films. Fairbanks spared no expense and effort in these films, which established the standard for all future swashbuckling films.
In 1921, he, Pickford, Chaplin, and others, helped to organise 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 film-making. Also, his athletic abilities and general health began to decline at this time, in part due to years of heavy chain-smoking. He and Pickford chose to make their first talkie as a joint venture, playing Petruchio and Kate in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (1929). This film, and his subsequent sound films, were poorly received by Depression era audiences. The last film he acted in was the British production The Private Life of Don Juan (1934), after which he retired from acting.
He continued to be marginally involved in the film 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 lived at 705 Ocean Front (now Pacific Coast Highway) in Santa Monica, California, although much of his time was spent travelling 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. By some accounts, he had been obsessively working-out against medical advice, trying to regain his once-trim waistline. Fairbanks's famous last words were "I've never felt better. 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 honoured 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, actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., were also interred here upon his death in 2000.