Younger Fairbanks lived up to the name

Appreciation: Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was dogged by his father's towering reputation, but he showed the way for actors' sons to come.

May 08, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Douglas Fairbanks Jr., son and stepson of screen immortals Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford, star of more than three score pictures in his own right and one of the last connections to the great silent age that gave birth to cinema, died yesterday. He was 90.

A spokesman for Manhattan's Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home confirmed Fairbanks' death but could provide no further details.

Although known primarily as an actor carrying on the tradition started by his father, Fairbanks Jr. was also an author, businessman, war hero and friend of British royalty -- accomplishments that may have meant more to him than his film career, which could never entirely shake the idea that it owed more to his famous father than to his own abilities.

"Only two things is he insistently proud of," film critic and historian Rochard Schickel wrote in 1975. "The first is that, as [an] economic man, he has made his own way -- accepting no help from his father or his father's friends, accepting, on several occasions that he was broke and had only his own talent and wit to achieve, or re-achieve security. The second is that his career has been validated objectively by the honors and awards he has received. He takes an almost boyish pleasure in his decorations, and he values the fact that people of world stature in realms of serious endeavor have sought out and value his friendship."

The younger Fairbanks made his film debut in 1923, at the age of 13, as the star of "Stephen Steps Out," a film -- and title -- that producer Jesse L. Lasky hoped would benefit from the tremendous fame of Fairbanks Sr. The film was not a success, and the elder Fairbanks rarely made any effort to promote his son's career -- he had "no more paternal feelings than a tiger in the jungle for his cub," the older man once confessed -- but the younger Fairbanks persevered.

In 1928, he acted alongside Greta Garbo in "A Woman of Affairs" and earned good notices in Frank Capra's "The Power of the Press."

The younger Fairbanks' reputation really took off with the advent of talkies. He inherited his father's rakish good looks, complete with thin mustache and dark complexion, and his voice was far better suited to the new medium. Between 1928 and 1941, he starred in a handful of memorable films, including "Our Modern Maidens," opposite his then-wife, Joan Crawford; "The Little Accident," opposite Anita Page; "Little Caesar," alongside Edward G. Robinson; "Morning Glory," the film for which Katharine Hepburn won her first Oscar, and "Catherine the Great." He played alongside Cary Grant in "Gunga Din," and even made a handful of the sort of swashbuckling adventure epics for which his father had become famous, including "The Corsican Brothers," "Sinbad the Sailor" and "The Prisoner of Zenda."

"He never achieved anything like his father's renown, and maybe because he was his father's son he was always underrated," film historian David Shipman wrote in 1979. Still, Fairbanks Jr. was perhaps the first son of a major screen star to become a success in his own right, paving the way for such future actors' sons as Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Fonda and Michael Douglas.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was born in New York City on Dec. 9, 1909, the only son of Fairbanks Sr. and his first wife, Anna. The couple divorced when their son was 9, and Douglas Jr. lived with his mother.

Although relationships between father and son were strained, Paramount took a chance that the magic of his father's name would lead to box-office gold, signing Fairbanks Jr. to a contract in 1923. But his career didn't really amount to anything until he started seeing Crawford, who was by this time a rising star at MGM. She challenged him to make something of his acting career, and he responded by committing to it in earnest -- with results that would keep him on screen for the better part of the next two decades.

Fairbanks and Crawford were married from 1929 to 1933.

Father and son reconciled during the elder's final years, and Fairbanks Sr. finally began taking pride in his son's accomplishments. Even so, the two maintained a distance from one another; the morning after his father died quietly in his sleep, the younger Fairbanks kissed him for what was said to be only the second time.

During World War II, Fairbanks served under British Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten as the first U.S. commander of a British flotilla. He received an honorary knighthood from King George VI. His other wartime decorations included an American Silver Star, a British Distinguished Service Cross and the French Legion of Honor.

After the war, Fairbanks discovered that the parts for which he was best suited were being given to other actors. He moved to Britain and began work as a film producer.

His hospitality as a British resident became legendary. He was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip and often entertained them at his home. "Entree into the Fairbankses' home is a hundred times more difficult than getting a ticket for the coronation," a London columnist once sniffed.

Fairbanks returned to the U.S. in the 1970s, spending much of his time pursuing business interests and making the social rounds. He wrote screenplays, short stories and poetry, exhibited his paintings and sculpture. His last movie, "Ghost Story," was released in 1981; seven years later, he published the first volume of his autobiography, "Salad Days."

Fairbanks married his second wife, Mary Lee Epling Hartford, in 1939; she died of cancer in 1988. In 1991, he married Vera Shelton, who survives him.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story.

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