Douglas Fairbanks

Active - 1915 - 2018  |   Born - May 23, 1883 in Denver, Colorado, United States  |   Died - Dec 12, 1939   |   Genres - Adventure, Comedy, Western, Action

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Biography by Hal Erickson

American actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr., instilled with a love of dramatics by his Shakespearean-scholar father, was never fully satisfied with theatrical work. A born athlete and extrovert, Fairbanks felt the borders of the stage were much too confining, even when his theatrical work allowed him to tour the world. The wide-open spaces of the motion picture industry were more his style, and in 1915 Fairbanks jumped at the chance to act in the film version of the old stage perennial The Lamb. Fairbanks became the top moneymaker for the Triangle Film Company, starring in an average of 10 pictures a year for a weekly salary of $2000. He specialized in comedies--not the slapstick variety, but free-wheeling farces in which he usually played a wealthy young man thirsting for adventure.

Fairbanks was a savvy businessman, and in 1919 he reasoned that he could have more control--and a larger slice of the profits -- if he produced as well as starred in his pictures. Working in concert with his actress-wife Mary Pickford (a star in her own right, billed as "America's Sweetheart"), his best friend Charlie Chaplin, and pioneer director D. W. Griffith, Fairbanks formed a new film company, United Artists. The notion of actors making their own movies led one film executive to wail, "The lunatics have taken over the asylum!", but Fairbanks' studio was a sound investment, and soon other actors were dabbling in the production end of the business. Still most successful in contemporary comedies in 1920, Fairbanks decided to try a momentary change of pace, starring in the swashbuckling The Mark of Zorro (1920). The public was enthralled, and for the balance of his silent career Fairbanks specialized in lavish costume epics with plenty of fast-moving stunt work and derring-do. While several of these films still hold their fascination today, notably The Thief of Baghdad (1924) and The Black Pirate (1926), some historians argue that Fairbanks' formerly breezy approach to moviemaking became ponderous, weighed down in too much spectacle for the Fairbanks personality to fully shine.

When talkies came, Fairbanks wasn't intimidated, since he was stage-trained and had a robust speaking voice; unfortunately, his first talking picture, 1929's Taming of the Shrew (in which he co-starred with Mary Pickford), was an expensive failure. Fairbanks' talking pictures failed to click at the box office; even the best of them, such as Mr. Robinson Crusoe (1932), seemed outdated rehashes of his earlier silent successes. Fairbanks' last film, the British-made Private Life of Don Juan (1934), unflatteringly revealed his advanced years and his flagging energy. Marital difficulties, unwise investments and health problems curtailed his previously flamboyant lifestyle considerably, though he managed to stave off several takeover bids for United Artists and retained the respect of his contemporaries. Fairbanks died in his sleep, not long after he'd announced plans to come out of retirement. He was survived by his actor son Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who'd inherited much of his dad's professional panache and who after his father's death began a successful career in film swashbucklers on his own.

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  • Father left his family in Denver, CO, to work on future president Benjamin Harrison's campaign; he never returned.
  • Was performing in amateur theater around the Denver area by the age of 11.
  • Moved to New York in 1900 to pursue a career on Broadway.
  • Made his Broadway debut in 1902 playing Florio in The Duke's Jester.
  • Was offered $104,000 in 1914 to leave New York and work in motion pictures.
  • Formed United Artists in 1919 with Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.
  • Cofounded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and was elected its first president.
  • Along with Mary Pickford, became the first to put his hand and footprints in the cement outside of Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.