Fairbanks Jr. Makes Peace With His Father's Name
The filmmaker and actor expounds on his two-volume memoirs
NEW YORK — IN his two volumes of memoirs, ``The Salad Days'' (1988, Doubleday), and the recently published ``A Hell of a War'' (1993, St. Martins Press, 278 pp., $22.95) the veteran screen actor and producer Douglas Fairbanks Jr. says much of his life has been a struggle to come to terms with his famous father.
``I made a solemn pledge to myself that somehow I would grow up to be `my own man,' '' he writes in ``The Salad Days.'' ``That determination remained one of the basic influences on my life from then to now.''
As we talked one day recently, the afternoon sun streamed through the broad windows of Fairbanks's Madison Avenue offices, splashing across the walls, tables, and display cases bulging with mementos of a career that has spanned more than 70 years.
He is dressed in a gray suit adorned by a red carnation and pocket handkerchief, and his signature flashing grin and twinkling blue eyes are as lively as ever.
``There was a time when, as a boy, I would have preferred to change my name,'' Mr. Fairbanks says. But ``when you have a father as famous as I had, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood and one of the most popular movie stars in the world, it was inevitable.... What else could I do but keep the name, insist on using the `Jr.' to differentiate me from `Sr.,' and do the best I could?''
His best has been nothing short of a remarkable career. As a filmmaker, Fairbanks has not only challenged his father on his own turf - making exciting swashbucklers like ``The Prisoner of Zenda'' (1937) and ``The Exile'' (1947) - but he has also earned respectable credentials as a character actor for his sensitive portrayals of the addled Czar Nicholas in ``Catherine the Great'' (1934) and an elderly man haunted by his past in ``Ghost Story'' (1968).
During World War II, he distinguished himself in combat as an American naval officer, receiving many honors for his command of small-boat operations and diversionary raids.
A globe-trotting diplomat, both officially and unofficially since the war, he has been a consultant for both the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Truman White Houses; chaired the organizations of the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe (CARE) and American Relief for Korea; enjoyed a close relationship with the British royal family for many years; and has been involved in the inner workings of the National Security Council.
He is especially proud of being made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1949 - an award administered by King George VI himself.
In the '50s, he became a successful TV producer of dramas for ``Douglas Fairbanks Presents'' and ``Rheingold Theater.'' And over the last 20 years, he's been in numerous stage revivals of ``My Fair Lady,'' ``Present Laughter,'' and ``Sleuth.''
``Through it all,'' he says, ``I think in a way I've always been trying to please my father,'' Fairbanks muses. ``We were always terribly shy around each other, and he wasn't around very much when I was a boy.
``It wasn't until the 1930s, long after my parents' divorce and just after my father's retirement - at a time when I was making successful films of my own - that we grew closer. I called him `Pete' and he called me `Jayar,' for `Jr.' It was like we were more comrades than father and son. We loosened up.
``When he died, I knew I had lost the one I had always wanted to please. On the other hand, I know now that at that moment I became my own man.''
Fairbanks is a tremendously engaging fellow. He loves to talk, and he insists on conducting me on a guided tour of his many mementos. Hundreds of photographs inscribed with hearty greetings beam out from the walls - Charles Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw, John Barrymore, Lord Mountbatten, Laurence Olivier, Winston Churchill, and others.
There's also a death mask of Napoleon, displays of uniforms and memorabilia from his Navy years, a pen-and-ink set from David O. Selznick (``without any hesitation, David was the greatest filmmaker I ever worked with''), a painting by his late wife, Mary Lee (he married his third wife, Vera, four years ago), and a rack of swords used in his pictures.
At one point, he grasps a sword and brandishes it in a characteristic gesture, which seems neither clumsy nor affected but modest, even shy.
In his memoirs Fairbanks is at some pains to debunk his reputation for heroics. He writes: ``During the war, many of the people I served with confused me with my movies. That was because my fright disguised itself with a forced show of high, good spirits. Usually, only I knew my lighthearted banter was my own particular form of hysteria.''
He admits he occasionally tried some of his movie stunts during combat operations. ``I can remember being tempted to leap over walls and jump out of airplanes and things like that - but I failed miserably.''
If Fairbanks doesn't spare himself in his recollections, he remains gallantly tactful and chivalrous toward his close friends.
He refuses to comment on charges of alcoholism concerning his beloved stepmother, Mary Pickford, and he is anxious to set the record straight about the reputedly stormy marriage with his first wife, Joan Crawford.
``I owe her a great deal,'' he says. ``I was only 18 or 19 when I met her, and anxious to please everybody in my family. I was not very much for myself. And Joan would tell me, `Stop this nonsense! Stand up for yourself! Be independent!' It worked.''
The second volume of Fairbanks's memoirs ends with his separation from active duty in the Navy in 1946.
He is elusive about plans for a third volume. ``I suppose I'll write one if I live long enough. I have notes on it, but I don't know if it's exciting enough to bother with it. I'll have to see. I had my three children and their grandchildren in mind all the time during the writing.''
``I'm not much of an introvert, or into self-analysis. I'm only interested in me inasmuch as I can write something that might interest other people.''