DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS, SR. (1883-1939)
Named Douglas Elton Thomas Ulman at birth, Douglas Fairbanks grew up in Denver, the fourth son of Ella Adelaide Marsh, a Southern socialite, and second son of Hezekia Charles Ulman, an attorney. When Ella Marsh's first husband, John Fairbanks, died of tuberculosis, Ulman handled the case. She then married a man named Wilcox, who turned out to be a brute, and Ulman handled her divorce. Sometime during the ordeal, the belle and the lawyer fell in love and left New York for Denver, where Ulman began taking business risks in the mining industry.
Bad business decisions compounded by Ulman's drinking problem ruined the family's financial security and left the couple's relationship in a shambles by the time Douglas was five years old. Ulman told his wife and the three boys (one from her first marriage) that he was going to take a temporary job in New York. It didn't take the family long to realize that he never intended to return. Ella also learned that her marriage to Ulman had never been valid: he had never legally finalized his divorce from his first wife. Furious with Ulman, Ella legally changed her two youngest boys' last name to Fairbanks, intent on associating them with the prestigious Fairbanks family and covering up their Jewish heritage.
Despite this abandonment, Douglas had wonderful memories of his dad. Ulman passed on his love for the theater to his boys, taking them to performances and sometimes escorting them backstage to meet the actors. Douglas began acting in amateur productions at various venues in Denver at the tender age of eleven. By the time he was a senior in high school, he was in such demand that he quit school and headed to Broadway. He made his debut there in 1902.
Five years later, he married Anna Beth Sully, daughter of Daniel Sully, a wealthy industrialist who insisted that an actor could not offer his daughter the kind of lifestyle she deserved. Sully eventually talked Fairbanks into leaving the stage and joining the Buchanan Soap Company, but the career change didn't stick. Within six months the actor went back to Broadway. Shortly thereafter, Buchanan Soap Company went out of business.
Douglas Fairbanks's son, Douglas Jr., was born in 1909. Times were hard as Fairbanks struggled to make a career on Broadway. Meanwhile, his father-in-law was bordering on pennilessness and frequently asked Fairbanks for financial help. By 1914 the struggle became too much, and Fairbanks took an offer from the Triangle Film Corporation to act in film, a decision that was quite painful because Broadway actors typically scoffed at the movies.
Fairbanks moved to Hollywood in 1915 and began working with famed director D. W. Griffith, who thought the actor had "a head like a cantaloupe" and couldn't act. Neither suspected that Fairbanks would become one of the most successful comedians of the silent screen, eventually establishing his own production company. In 1917 he fell in love with his future wife, Mary Pickford, and the pair, along with Charlie Chaplin and Griffith, formed United Artists Corporation, an independent distributor for actors producing their own movies. The venture changed Hollywood's status quo and allowed big-name directors and stars to leave the stifling confines of the big studios and enjoy more creative freedom.
In 1920, Fairbanks and Pickford divorced their respective spouses and married each other. Realizing that his popularity was waning because his roles had become too predictable, Fairbanks took another risk: he began starring in adventure films. The Mark of Zorro was the first of several lavish productions and set the standard for adventure films for years to come. In 1927 he founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and became its first president. He hosted the first Academy Awards in 1929.By the early 1930s, Fairbanks and Pickford were no longer in demand, and the former had grown disillusioned with the film industry as well as his own company. Fairbanks and Pickford separated, and he made his last film in 1934. By 1936 he was divorced again and married to Lady Sylvia Ashley. A dedicated party girl, Ashley influenced Fairbanks to adopt her less-than-salubrious ways. Friends and family worried that the late nights, drinking, smoking, and overeating would affect the former actor's health and, in fact, he died of a heart attack in 1939.