Between 1915 and 1934, actor Douglas Fairbanks displayed unparalleled athletic prowess marked by a naturally optimistic zest for life in over 40 films that turned him into one of Hollywood's biggest silent era stars. During the height of his fame in the 1920s, Fairbanks portrayed historical characters of incredible exuberance and unbounded energy, as he jumped, swung, leaped and, most importantly, smiled his way across American movie screens. After a successful New York stage career, he entered the film business as one of D.W. Griffith's stars in films like "The Lamb" (1915) and "Double Trouble" (1915), but soon found himself put to better use under different directors as an upper class dynamo in "American Aristocracy" (1916), "Wild and Woolly" (1917) and "Reaching for the Moon" (1917). After a brief hiatus to sell war bonds for World War I, Fairbanks returned to Hollywood and dropped his aristocratic persona in favor of playing cheery swashbucklers in the day's most popular movies, like "The Mark of Zorro" (1920), "Robin Hood" (1922) and "The Thief of Baghdad" (1924), all of which featured the actor performing his own elaborate stunts. At the same time, he married star Mary Pickford and the two became Hollywood's first celebrated couple. Meanwhile, he formed United Artists with Griffith, Pickford and Charlie Chaplin to distribute movies and exercise creative control over their films. He went on to star in hits like "The Black Pirate" (1926) and "The Guacho" (1927), before entering the talkie era with the partial sound film, "The Iron Mask" (1929). But with his declining health - not to mention his divorce from Pickford - Fairbanks retired from acting after making "The Private Life of Don Juan" (1934) and died five years later. Remembered for his groundbreaking movies, elaborate stunts and always sunny optimism, Fairbanks remained one of early Hollywood's most enduring stars.
Born on May 23, 1883 in Denver, CO, Fairbanks was briefly raised by his father, Charles Ullman, a Jewish New York lawyer who had traveled West to pursue mining interests, and his mother, Ella Marsh, a Catholic Southern belle whose first husband's business partners swindled her well-to-do family out of their wealth. Encouraged by his father to recite Shakespeare, Fairbanks began acting in amateur theater at an early age while receiving his education at the Jarvis Military Academy and East Denver High School. Fairbanks later claimed that he attended both the Colorado School of Mines and Harvard University, though no official records existed for the former and his stay at the latter was brief at best. In 1900, he began performing with Frederick Warde's touring company and made his debut with a small role in "The Duke's Jester," which staged in Richmond, VA. Two years later, Fairbanks moved to New York and made his Broadway debut with a bit part in "Her Lord and Master" (1902). He soon had his first leading role with a Broadway production of "As Ye Sow" (1905), only to leave the theater entirely to travel Europe with friends.
Upon his return to the States, Fairbanks found work at the brokerage house, De Coppet & Doremus, before trying his hand at the hardware manufacturing business. But he returned to acting on Broadway with "Mrs. Jack" and in 1907 married his first wife, Anna Beth Sully, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. Two years later, the couple had a son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who would later follow his father into showbiz, becoming a bit of a matinee idol himself. After playing the leads in "He Comes Up Smiling" (1914) and "The Show Shop" (1914), Fairbanks wrapped up his successful theater career and entered motion pictures by signing with Triangle Films at a salary of $2,000 per week. He soon found himself under the wing of D.W. Griffith. With his Victorian sensibilities, the director had no feel for Fairbanks's 20th-century dynamism and the star's first films, "The Lamb" (1915) and "Double Trouble" (1915), traded on his Broadway successes rather than the actor's obvious charm. When Griffith delegated to others the task of molding his screen persona, Fairbanks sought more compatible collaborators. With "His Picture in the Papers" (1916), director-writer John Emerson and writer Anita Loos joined the Fairbanks camp and immediately hit on the right approach. The Loos/Emerson combination created a peppy satire featuring the up-and-at-'em Fairbanks athleticism, a response to the increasing industrialization and encroaching commercialization of the American landscape.
The trio continued to mock commercial faddism and celebrity pretensions, with Fairbanks often playing an upper-class dynamo who shows up his fellow aristocrats in such films as "The Half Breed" (1916), "American Aristocracy" (1916), "Manhattan Madness" (1916), "The Matrimaniac" (1916), "The Americano" (1917), "In Again, Out Again" (1917), "Wild and Woolly" (1917), "Down to Earth" (1917) and "Reaching for the Moon" (1917). With "The Habit of Happiness" (1916), another Fairbanks stalwart, director Allan Dwan, came into the fold. But as his career was truly taking off, Fairbanks was sidetracked by World War I, for which he toured the U.S. alongside actress Mary Pickford and comedy star Charlie Chaplin to sell war bonds. In fact, Fairbanks and Pickford had begun an affair in 1916 that eventually led to his first wife to file for divorce in 1919. At the time, Pickford was married to actor Owen Moore, and also filed for divorce. Fairbanks and Pickford were married on March 28, 1920, much to the delight and excitement of the motion picture goers, and became Hollywood's first celebrity couple. In fact, Fairbanks and Pickford were something like Hollywood royalty, entertaining everyone from fellow celebrities to world leaders and even presidents at their rolling Beverly Hills estate dubbed "Pickfair" by the press.
Fairbanks increased his business stature by forming the Douglas Fairbanks Picture Corporation with Emerson, but it was his formation of United Artists with Pickford, Chaplin and Griffith that truly solidified him as a major Hollywood powerbroker. Meanwhile, after returning to filmmaking in the wake of his war bonds tour, Fairbanks faced the sobering truth that audiences no longer identified with his anachronistic persona of a carefree aristocrat. So with "When the Clouds Roll By" (1919) and "The Nut" (1921), he began introducing fantasy elements into contemporary stories. In the 1920s, Fairbanks shifted to lavish costume action-adventures that placed his pre-war optimist into historical and fairy-tale settings. In "The Mark of Zorro" (1920), Fairbanks deftly combined romance, comedy and swashbuckling swordplay in this 80-minute adventure in which he played the wealthy son of a land owner who masquerades as the masked Robin Hood-like Señor Zorro. He displayed his athletic prowess as d'Artagnan in "The Three Musketeers" (1921), where Fairbanks - who did his own acrobatics - pulled off a one-handed sword grab that was one of his finest stunts.
Fairbanks delivered one of his most iconic performances in "Robin Hood" (1922), one of the decade's most expensive movies to make and the first-ever to receive a Hollywood premiere. A classic of the silent era, "Robin Hood" cemented the actor's place as the era's most important and popular movie star. Fairbanks reached the height of his artistic and commercial abilities with "The Thief of Baghdad" (1924), an extraordinary swashbuckling adventure that featured superlative special effects - for its day, at least - including a stunning ride through the streets atop a magic carpet. Meanwhile, Fairbanks' optimistic hero leaped and dashed his way to the rescue, putting his unparalleled athletic abilities on full display. After a reprisal of Zorro in "Don Q, Son of Zorro" (1925), he played the titular role in the epic adventure, "The Black Pirate" (1926). At the apex of his popularity, Fairbanks made the lavish adventure "The Gaucho" (1927) before playing an aging d'Artagnan in "The Iron Mask" (1929), which marked his last silent film - though it was in fact a part-talkie - while putting an end to the lavish adventures that defined his career throughout the decade.
Following the release of "The Iron Mask," Fairbanks publicly declared his intention to retire from the movies, due in part to his athletic abilities and health going into decline due to age and heavy smoking. And with the stock market crash of 1929, optimism - which was so effortless conveyed by Fairbanks - was dealt a death blow. Meanwhile, he entered the talkie era alongside Pickford, playing Petruchio to her Kate in the first-ever sound adaptation of William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" (1929). With his career slowing down, Fairbanks made his last two pictures, "Mr. Robinson Caruso" (1932) and "The Private Life of Don Juan" (1934), after which he retired from acting. By this time, his marriage to Pickford was on the rocks due to his affair with socialite Sylvia Ashley. Fairbanks' divorce from Pickford was finalized in 1936, with the actor leaving his former wife with their famed Pickfair estate, where she lived until her death in 1979. Fairbanks went on to marry Ashley in Paris the same year his divorce became official, and was only loosely associated with the filmmaking and the business during his final years, choosing instead to travel abroad with his new wife. His health continued to fail, however, and Fairbanks suffered a heart attack in his Santa Monica home. He died the following day on May 23, 1939. He was 56, and left behind a legacy as being Hollywood's first true action hero.