Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

Douglas Fairbanks and the Birth of Hollywood's Love Affair with the Olympics

Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

Douglas Fairbanks and the Birth of Hollywood's Love Affair with the Olympics

Article excerpt

Over the past 20 or so years, Hollywood stars have clamored to be associated with the Olympic Games. Tom Selleck was the honorary captain of the 1984 U.S. Olympic Men's Volleyball Team. Dolph Lundgren was chosen by the United States Olympic Team as the honorary team leader for the 1996 U.S. Olympic Pentathlon Team. Also in 1996, Bruce Willis and then wife Demi Moore adopted the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Teams, holding nightly parties for them in the Atlanta Planet Hollywood. Recently, Pamela Anderson sponsored Olympic gymnast Mohini Bhardwaj, enabling her to concentrate on making the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team. But all of these instances appear to be one time arrangements and mostly for publicity, either for the celebrity or the team. The first time any actor showed a genuine interest in the modern Olympic Games came in the 1920s.

Douglas Fairbanks was always interested in physical activity, even as a boy in Denver, Colorado, when he was known as Douglas Ulman. (1) Once he decided to pursue an acting career he moved to New York and changed his name to Douglas Fairbanks. In addition to acting he began taking formal gymnastics and fencing lessons, although he had begun both informally as a 12-year old. After an on again off again Broadway career, Fairbanks and his first wife moved to Hollywood to begin his career in films. Quickly he began to catch on in films, mostly due to his athletic prowess and daring stunts. By 1919, he was one of the stars of Hollywood, and within the year he would divorce his wife and marry America's Sweetheart, Mary Pickford. They became the "most popular couple in the world." Together with Charlie Chaplin, they would found United Artists and become three of the most powerful people in the film industry.

Fairbanks was an avowed fitness advocate and an avid sports fan. He was the first real stuntman in movies and was the first, and best, of the "swashbucklers. "Of all the actors who have fought with swords the best actual athlete remains ... Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Yet he made all of his swashbuckling movies after the age of thirty-five," said fencing historian Richard Cohen. (2)

He admired athletes as much as people around the world idolized him. As heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey remembered, "Fairbanks wanted to be my pal and having him as a pal in Hollywood back then was like having a credit card today. Except there never was a bill." (3)

Two of Fairbanks' closest friends were Fred Cavens, his Belgian fencing master, and Chuck Lewis, his trainer and close personal friend. Craven was promoted by Fairbanks' film company as an Olympic champion, and Lewis was also portrayed as an Olympic decathlete. The problem was that neither was an Olympian; the claims were pure public relations, or in modern jargon--spin. Why would Fairbanks lie about such information? He had a knack throughout his life of exaggerating the truth. (4) Perhaps it was because he valued the Olympic Games as the epitome of athletic competition, or that he simply admired Olympic athletes so much that he desired to be associated with them.

Whereas he admired all accomplished athletes, it was the "amateur athletes," the runners and fencers, that he appreciated the most. At Pickfair, the mansion where he and Pickford lived, he had a world- class cinder track installed along with a well-furnished gym. He also had a track built at his movie studio, often inviting his favorite athletes over to train and for makeshift competitions in which Fairbanks participated.

"I got to know Douglas Fairbanks real well," remembered Bud Houser, 1924 Olympic shot put and discus gold medalist and 1928 discus gold medalist. "He'd never miss a meet at the Coliseum; he might pass up a football game, but not a track meet. He'd have Kenny Grumbles, Leighton Dye and I over to the studio on Saturday mornings for decathlon competitions. He was right in there with us. He said, 'I've got a generation on you guys and I don't want to pile up and die right here, so I'll stop at six events; you guys can keep going. …

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