Born Douglas Elton Ullman in Denver, Colorado, the son of Hezekiah Charles Ullman (born September 1833) and Ella Adelaide Marsh (born 1850).
Douglas Fairbanks began acting on the Denver stage at an early age, doing amateur theatre. He was in summer stock at the Elitch Gardens Theatre, becoming a sensation in his teens.
He moved to New York in the early 1900s to pursue an acting career, joining the acting troupe of British actor Frederick Warde who had discovered Fairbanks performing in Denver. He worked in a hardware store and as a clerk in a Wall Street office before his Broadway debut in 1902.
Fairbanks signed a contract with Triangle Pictures in 1915 and began working under the supervision of D.W. Griffith. His athletic abilities were not appreciated by Griffith, however, and he was brought to the attention of Anita Loos and John Emerson, who wrote and directed many of his early romantic comedies.
He met actress and businesswoman Mary Pickford at a party in 1916 and they began having an affair. In 1917, they, along with Charlie Chaplin, traveled across the U.S. by train selling war bonds. Pickford and Chaplin were then the two highest paid movie stars in Hollywood. Fairbanks set up his own production company, the Douglas Fairbanks Film Corporation. Within eighteen months of his arrival, Fairbanks' popularity and business acumen raised him up to be the third highest paid. To curtail these stars' astronomical salaries, the large studios attempted to monopolize the distributors and exhibitors.
To avoid being controlled by the studios and to protect their independence, Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith formed United Artists in 1919, which created their own distributorships and gave them complete artistic control over their movies and the profits generated. The company was kept solvent in the years immediately after its formation largely from the success of Fairbanks' films.
By 1920, Fairbanks had completed twenty-
During the first ceremony of its type, he and Pickford placed their hand and foot prints in wet cement at the newly opened Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on April 30, 1927. Fairbanks was elected first President of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences that same year, and he hosted the first Academy Awards presentation (then held as a banquet, rather than today's big ceremony). Fairbanks' also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7020 Hollywood Boulevard.
His last silent film was The Iron Mask (1929). Although Fairbanks flourished in the silent film genre, the restrictions of early sound films dulled his enthusiasm for movie-