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100 New Yorkers of the 1970s By Max Millard Characters: 5304

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Six times he has received an advance to write his autobiography, and six times he has returned the money because of the enormity of the task. The life of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is too rich and varied to be condensed into a one-volume narrative.

The only child of Douglas Fairbanks Sr., America's first great matinee idol, he has acted in more than 75 feature films, produced 160 television plays and a dozen movies, performed in countless stage plays and musicals, made numerous recordings, written screenplays, published his articles and drawings in many of the nation's leading magazines, and given his time freely to at least 50 public service organizations. Ten countries on four continents have presented him with major awards for his diplomatic and philanthropic activities.

"One morning I woke up and said, 'I suppose I must have retired,'" notes the tanned, vigorous 69-year-old at his Madison Avenue office, from behind his huge antique desk with brass lions' heads for drawer pulls. But in our long discussion, it becomes obvious that he has never actually retired, either as an entertainer or as a force in public affairs. His office is fairly cluttered with mementoes of his world travels - swords, statuettes, novelty lamps, old photographs, oversized travel books. The white-haired, melodious-voiced actor sits looking very comfortable as he tells about his ongoing stage career.

"My favorite type of work right now is doing plays for limited periods. In 1940 I gave up stage acting, but in 1968 I did the first big revival of My Fair Lady, and since then I have been in several other plays. This summer I'm doing My Fair Lady again in Reno for eight to 10 weeks. … I didn't want to copy Rex Harrison, but I was prevailed upon by Lerner and Loewe to do this. I've known them since before they knew each other. They're going to make a number of adjustments for me. My other project, which is still in the planning stages, is a new Broadway show. But it's really too soon to talk about it."

On August 13, the classic 1939 film Gunga Din, in which Fairbanks co stars with Cary Grant, will be shown at 9 p.m. on Channel 9 with a single commercial-interruption. His other hit films include Sinbad the Sailor and The Prisoner of Zenda. He acted in his first movie in 1923 while barely in his teens, and in 1932 he was designated a star. He continued to make films until 1941, when he joined the U.S. armed forces and served for more than five years. Then he resumed his film career with much success before turning his hand to producing in 1952.

"Everybody misuses the word 'star' today," he explains. "Legally, it only means havi

ng your name above the title. There's no such thing as a superstar. That's a term we have let creep into the language. Actually Charlie Chaplin may have been a superstar, but he's one of the very few." He laughs and tells about another aspect of modern-day moviemaking that amuses him. "Very few of the great producers in the past paid any attention to credits at all. Now, they all like to get their names in the billing and in the ads, as big as the stars' names - as if anybody cares who made the film!"

Asked whether his career was helped by having a famous father in the movie business, he replies that "the advantages were ephemeral. They were limited to people being polite and nice, but that wouldn't necessarily lead to any jobs. It usually meant that I would be underpaid rather than overpaid, and they would expect more of me. By the time I became a star, my father had already retired."

His stepmother Mary Pickford, "America's sweetheart," who died in May at the age of 86, joined with Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith in 1919 to found United Artists. The following year she married Fairbanks, and together they virtually ruled Hollywood. Douglas Junior, who became close to his father only in his late teens, grew up in New York, Hollywood, London and Paris - which helps to explain his love for travel and his endless quest for variety.

As the creative force behind the acclaimed TV series Douglas Fairbanks Presents, he produced an average of 32 one-hour films a year from 1952 and 1957. "My studio manager had a heart attack and my story editor had a nervous breakdown, just from the pressure of getting out these films. I thought I would be next, so I decided to quit," he says. "They were very elaborate productions. We used to have the scripts six months in advance. Now, if you start shooting on Tuesday, you'll get the script on Monday."

Today, with his multiple business interests and philanthropic pursuits, he maintains a house in Florida, an office in London, and, since 1956, an apartment on the Upper East Side. He and his wife Mary have been married for 40 years and have three daughters, two of whom live in England.

His overall career, concludes Fairbanks, "does not have a single theme, because it's been so diversified. It's been a series of themes. Maybe it's cacophonous. The things I find most interesting don't pay a penny. But possibly all my activities blended together have something to do with a person who's got a lot of curiosity and energy and capacity to enjoy and appreciate life."

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WESTSIDER LEE FALK

Creator of The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician

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