Silent-film star Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was born on May 23, 1883, in Denver, Colorado. A popular Broadway actor, Fairbanks made his first film for D.W. Griffith in 1915 (The Lamb). In the 1920s, Fairbanks played swashbucklers like Robin Hood and Zorro, and won the heart and hand of fellow screen idol Mary Pickford. Along with Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, the couple launched the independent studio United Artists in 1919. Following his third marriage in 1936, to Lady Sylvia Ashley, Fairbanks retired from acting. He died of a heart attack in 1939.
Early Life and Career
Born on May 23, 1883, in Denver, Colorado, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was a leading star of the silent-film era. Named Douglas Elton Thomas Ullman at birth, he took the last name Fairbanks after his parents' divorce when he was a child. Fairbanks began acting in his early teens, appearing in local productions. A student at the Colorado School of Mines, he also performed in some school shows.
Heading east in 1900, Fairbanks made his way to New York City. His first role on Broadway came two years later, in Her Lord and Master. More stage work soon followed, with Fairbanks tackling both comedic and dramatic parts. In 1907, following his marriage to Anna Beth Sully, he began a dalliance with a business career, but soon returned to his life as an actor. Fairbanks and his wife welcomed a son, Douglas Jr., in 1909.
A successful stage actor, Fairbanks soon attracted the attention of the film industry. He made his movie debut in 1915, in D.W. Griffith's The Lamb. Fairbanks made a flurry of films over the next few years, including The Americano (1916).
Fairbanks proved to be quite business-savvy, signing a groundbreaking deal with Artcraft studios to produce his own films, beginning with Reaching for the Moon (1917). This way, he had more control of the quality and content of his movies, and even wrote or revised some of his film's scripts under the pseudonym Elton Thomas. Fairbanks quickly became a popular leading man, known for his charm, good nature, athletic prowess and physique.
In 1919, Fairbanks made another smart move: He teamed up with D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford to launch the independent studio United Artists. His Majesty, the American, starring Fairbanks, was United Artists' first release.
Hollywood's Golden Couple
Douglas Fairbanks's relationship with Mary Pickford should have been the subject of great scandal. The pair took up with each other while they were both married to other people, but they divorced their spouses and married in 1920, much to the adoration of their fans. The couple was even greeted by hordes of admirers while on their honeymoon abroad.
Fairbanks and Pickford were one of Hollywood's first super-couples, attracting extensive media coverage of their relationship. Their Beverly Hills home, called Pickfair, became the site of numerous soirees and celebrations, which were attended by many celebrities and leading figures in film.
Popular Movie Hero
Fairbanks often played swashbuckling heroes in his films, including Zorro in 1920's The Mark of Zorro. The following year, he played Comte d'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (1921). One of his most well-regarded films, The Thief of Bagdad, was released in 1924. Two years later, he achieved another wave of success with The Black Pirate.
By the end of the decade, however, Fairbanks's career had begun to fade. In 1929, he co-starred with Pickford in a film adaptation of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. By the time this movie was made, however, Fairbanks's relationship with Pickford had begun to crumble—and their dissolving union wasn't helped by the fact that their movie proved to be a commercial disappointment.
Fairbanks and Pickford, Hollywood's once-beloved couple, parted ways in 1933, officially divorcing three years later. With his career also at an end by this time, Fairbanks made his final film appearance in The Private Life of Don Juan (1934). While separated from Pickford, he had become involved with Lady Sylvia Ashley. He married Lady Ashley in March 1936.
After marrying for the third time, Fairbanks retired from acting. He died of a heart attack on December 12, 1939, at the age of 56, at his home in Santa Monica, California.
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