Forever a legend. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., prince of
cinematic royalty, dashing film star and decorated war hero, who remained one of the
enduring elite of his generation well into the dawn of the new millennium, died in
New York on May 7, 2000, at the age of 90.
His story reads as only Hollywood
could tell it, though the tale had its start in Tinseltown's predecessor, New York
City. Born to swashbuckling film star Douglas Fairbanks and wife Anna Beth Sully on
December 9, 1909, the Junior Fairbanks was groomed early for his father's career
path. However, unlike so many other "Juniors" who can never escape the
coat tails of the famous "Senior," son eventually carved out a niche of
fame and renown uniquely his own.
His earliest film appearances, dating back
to 1921, were less than successful: quite ironic, particularly considering that the
influential Photoplay magazine noted, in 1925, that the younger Fairbanks was
"considered a real bet, with much of his father's charm and artistry."
After a successful Los Angeles stage debut in 1927, coupled with his highly
publicized marriage to actress Joan Crawford in 1929, Fairbanks' visibility
increased, as did the strength of his roles.
The more than 75 films that were
graced by his larger-than-life presence include the famed gangster flick Little
Caesar (1930); Katharine Hepburn's initial Oscar vehicle Morning Glory (1933); the
regal drama Catherine the Great (1934), and the adventure classics The Prisoner of
Zenda (1937), Gunga Din (1939), and Sinbad the Sailor (1947). The Corsican Brothers
(1941), in which he played both twins Mario and Lucien, and the suspense thriller
State Secret (1950), were particularly strong vehicles for his talents. He was
equally adept at comedy as in drama, lending grace and flair to such film genres as
romance, action, adventure, crime, and musicals - always excelling at each role he
More than just a film star, Fairbanks enjoyed quite an impressive
career in service to his country. In 1941, FDR appointed him Special Envoy to
Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay. Later that year, he was called
to active U.S. Navy service. In 1943, he trained and lead commando units to conduct tactical cover, diversionary and deception missions.
He was awarded numerous medals and commendations for bravery and innovation. In
1949, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was honored as Knight Commander of the Most Excellent
Order of the British Empire for "furthering Anglo-American amity."
activities were not relegated solely to the war effort. His work on behalf of CARE,
of which Fairbanks was a past fund-raising chairman, raised upwards of $150 million
in shipments of food and goods to European countries. His business interests,
complement to his post-film career, were as eclectic as his cinematic strengths: he
dabbled in real estate, marketed ball-point pens, and established himself as an
author, with the publication of two autobiographies, The Salad Days, in 1988, and A
Hell of a War, in 1993.
Fairbanks' talents transcended the silver screen, as
he graced the small screen with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Presents, a television
anthology series -- 155 episodes aired from 1953-57, a quarter of which starred its
host. In addition, he continued to dabble in stage work well into his seventies: he
appeared in over 30 plays, including Present Laughter, The Secretary Bird, and as
Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Set a record in 1975 for most consecutive on-stage
appearances at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
"I do one play a year, and that's about it," Fairbanks told The Washington
Post in 1982. "Like any good gambler I quit while I was ahead. ... I'd much
rather have people ask me why I stopped acting instead of 'Why don't you stop
On the personal front, life had a public air to it essentially
from sunrise to sunset. His stepmother was film legend Mary Pickford, who married
the elder Fairbanks in 1920. His home, as a teen, was Pickfair, the magnificent
estate once the center of the Hollywood society scene. His early and tempestuous
marriage to Crawford ended in 1933; six years later he wed Mary Lee Epling Hartford,
with whom he had three daughters, and to whom he remained married for almost a half
of a century, until her death from cancer in 1988. On May 30, 1991, Fairbanks
married merchandiser Vera Shelton, who survives him, as do his daughters, Daphne,
Victoria, and Melissa, eight grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.
honors unique to the City of Angels, Fairbanks was awarded three stars on the
Hollywood Walk of Fame: in celebration of his film career, at 6318 Hollywood
Boulevard, in respect to his radio work, at 6712 Hollywood Boulevard, and citing his
television achievements, at 6665 Hollywood Boulevard.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
will rest, alongside his famous father, in the beautiful Sunken Garden in Hollywood
Forever Cemetery. The dash between the dates, comprising his fabled life, will
forever be the stuff of cinematic legend. In a 1989 interview, he looked back on his
life, and seemed quite pleased with what he found: "I worked hard and played
hard, and it was all tremendously rewarding. I just wish it could go on and on and