The Fairbanks Legacy:

An Interview with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

By Dan Lybarger

February 26, 1996

  While Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who starred in such classics as George Stevensí Gunga Din, is 86-years-old and hasnít appeared in a feature film since Ghost Story in 1981, he has been anything but idle.

"Iím always busy. Iíve a dozen things going on all the time. I never get any time off, curiously enough. Iím used to being busy; I enjoy it," he says in a recent telephone interview from his office in New York.

Part of the reason for his recent activity is the forthcoming Kino on Video release of restored versions of his fatherís silent classics. Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939) was dubbed "The Worldís Most Popular Man," and he earned that title for starring in a series of lavishly-produced 1920ís swashbucklers like The Three Musketeers, The Thief of Baghdad, Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro. These films featured opulent sets and elaborate stunts where the senior Fairbanks would find spectacular ways to put his life on the line. He would leap in and out of giant water jugs in The Thief of Baghdad and would slide down an enormous curtain in Robin Hood.

Having visited the sets of Robin Hood and The Thief of Baghdad, his son describes the making of the films as being equally exciting to watching them. "The sets were pretty impressive in life just as they were on the screen. On weekends when nobody was in the studio, some of my schoolmates and I would go clamoring around the set, and we would play games and nobody would catch us."

Because he co-owned his own studio (United Artists) and took a hand in every aspect of production Douglas Fairbanks could make exactly the kind of movies he wanted. "He was the boss of everything. He gave other people credit. They were really his employees who did it as he told them," his son recalls. "He told the director what to direct, the photographer what to photograph, told the art director what kind of sets he wanted and corrected it himself."

While the younger Fairbanks followed in his fatherís swashbuckling footsteps in movies like The Corsican Brothers, he has been a chameleon. He would be the hero in Gunga Din, the heel in The Rise of Catharine the Great, a con man trying to go straight in Little Caesar and a romantic foil for Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory. Fairbanks recalls, "My father was his own producer. I was only able to (produce myself) toward the end of my career. Before that I was just somebody getting a salary or a percentage. I was not my own producer for a long time, and even then I was limited in terms of budget and the kind of films I could make, but it was a different approach altogether."

In fact, a suggestion from his father helped him add to his versatility. He says, "In The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), I wasnít sure whether I should play (the villain Rupert of Hentzau) because I had been working for a long time and finally had contracts where I was a Ďso-calledí star and had my name above the title. I wondered if I should play the part because it was in support of Ronald Colman. I liked Colman; he was a friend of mine, and I admired him greatly. But I didnít know why professionally I should do something which was second-place. I mentioned it to my father, and he said, ĎDonít be a damn fool. The part of Rupert of Hentzau is the best part ever written. Itís so good that a dog could play the part and walk away with the story!í"

Recently, the younger Fairbanks made a comeback of sorts when he recalled his experiences with media magnate William Randolph Hearst in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Battle over Citizen Kane, which aired January 29th on PBS. "I wasnít that close to him, but I knew him. Iíd been his guest at dinners and at weekends in the country." Citizen Kane is fictionalized and did take more than a few pot shots at the real-life newspaper giant. "Not being Mr. Hearst, myself all I can say if it happened to me, I would certainly be embarrassed by the similarity (between the real Hearst and the fictional Kane). He adds, "Hearst, himself, was responsible for creating these legends. He somewhat encouraged the stories about himself."

Thanks to the appearance, home video and the quality of their work, the appeal of both father and son endures. "Some people still write to me about my fatherís films and some about mine. I began so long ago that Iím sort of an antique myself," he laughs.

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This page was last updated on 10/29/97.
Ó 1997 Dan Lybarger