Famous Family History Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Children

About the family of actor Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., biography and history of his only son.

ROOTS AND FRUITS: A FOREST OF FAMILY TREES

DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS, SR. (1883-1939), U.S. actor

His Fruits: Although Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., was married three times, he had but one offspring, by his first wife, Anna Beth Sully. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., born Dec. 9, 1909, in New York City, was a fat, unathletic child and a disappointment to his father. Moreover, the selfinvolved Fairbanks Senior was not a particularly good father and paid little attention to his son. "It's just that I was never cut out to be a father," he admitted. "It isn't that I don't like Junior, but I can't feel about him the way I should." Occasionally, though, his fatherly instincts did become aroused, such as the time when Douglas Junior was bitten on the shin by a dog. Fairbanks practically killed the animal. On another occasion, young Fairbanks fell and split open his knee. A bottle of iodine was poured into the gash, and he recalled his father's admiration for his stoic refusal to show any reaction to the pain. "It was one of the proudest moments of my youth," Fairbanks recalled, "as this behavior was remarked on by my father for some weeks afterward." Eventually he grew to be taller and more handsome than his father, though he was never quite as athletic.

Fairbanks's parents were divorced when he was nine, and in order to save money--the generous marital settlement of $500,000 was soon lost through poor investments--mother and son moved to Paris. When Doug was 13, he was approached by the producer Jesse Lasky and talked into making a film. When Fairbanks Senior heard of it, he was livid, perhaps partially due to the fact that he was not anxious to have it known that he had a child in his teens, but also because he felt that his son had been asked to appear in the film simply to trade on the Fairbanks name (true, no doubt). But young Fairbanks persisted, and Stephen Steps Out was released in 1923. It was a horrible flop. Nevertheless, because he and his mother needed the money, Fairbanks continued to make films and improve as an actor. In 1927 he appeared in Los Angeles in the play Young Woodley, and his father was forced to admit, "He's good; he really can act." He subsequently appeared in such film hits as Gunga Din, Little Caesar, Sinbad the Sailor, The Corsican Brothers, and The Prisoner of Zenda, but he cared little for acting. "I began to be embarrassed that the interpretation was really someone else's creation . . . realizing my own limitations, I became aware that I could never be a creative actor. I would only be an interpretative one or an imitator."

At 19, much to his father's chagrin, Fairbanks married Joan Crawford, who at the time was a struggling, relatively unknown actress. The marriage ended four years later. In 1939 he married Mary Lee Epling.

For most of his childhood Fairbanks was estranged from his aloof father, but as time passed they reconciled and became good friends. His father still had an aversion to being called Dad so his son called him Pete, and he called Douglas "Jayar" (i.e., Jr.). Fairbanks Senior, at the time of his death, was planning to star his son in The Californian, a film he was preparing to produce.

The younger Fairbanks was an avowed Anglophile who lobbied tirelessly for British-American cooperation during W.W. II. When the U.S. entered the war, he enlisted in the navy and soon earned the Silver Star, the British Distinguished Service Cross, and the French Legion of Honor. After the war he continued his interest in politics by working for the Marshall Plan, CARE, and the U.N., in addition to starring in several more films and becoming a television and film producer. He was one of the few Americans knighted by the British for his long-standing efforts to promote Anglo-American understanding. By his second wife, Mary Lee Epling, he has three daughters, all of whom are married.

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