The legendary career of Fredric March assures his place in cinema history. From starring to supporting and cameo roles, March will long be remembered as an avuncular screen presence who delighted audiences for over four decades.
Born Ernest Fredric McIntyre Bickel on August 31, 1897, in Racine, Wisconsin, March left his studies at the University of Wisconsin for service in World War I, doing duty as an artillery lieutenant. When he returned to resume his education, March began participating in college dramatics, although he had planned on a career in banking. He went to New York in 1920 and began an apprenticeship at the National City Bank, but while recuperating from an appendicitis attack in a hospital bed, he made up his mind once and for all to quit the job and seek his fortune in acting.
He made his debut later that same year, playing a bit part in Belasco’s Baltimore production of “Deburau.” At the same time, he began getting extra assignments in films shooting in New York, including “Paying the Piper” and “The Great Adventure” (both 1921). He played his first Broadway lead in “The Devil in the Cheese” in 1926. The following year he married actress Florence Eldrige and, instead of taking a honeymoon, they went on tour with the Theatre Guild’s first traveling repertory company.
March’s parody of John Barrymore in the West Coast production of “The Royal Family” resulted in a five-year contract with Paramount Pictures. Starting out as a romantic leading man, March emerged as one of Hollywood’s subtlest and most sensitive actors, a performer of considerable range with an intuitive grasp of the requirements of screen acting.
He played a variety of roles, including comedy and adventure, but was at his best portraying characters who struggled with some mental anguish. He won his first Academy Award for his role in 1932’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” by far the most successful of the screen adaptions of the Robert Louis Stevenson story. His second Oscar was for his portrayal of a returning war veteran in William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946).
March reserved the right to choose his roles himself and exercised his option wisely most of the time. Beginning in the late 1930’s, he returned to the New York stage with great regularity in between film assignments. He achieved perhaps his greatest stage success in 1956, in “A Long Day’s Journey into Night,” for which he won the New York Drama Critics Award.