His matinee-idol handsomeness might have provided a foothold for both Broadway and Hollywood, but the thoughtful and compelling craftwork of Fredric March only seemed to continually mature over the course of a near-half-century career, resulting in some of American cinema’s more complex and enduring characterizations. Born in Racine, Wisconsin in 1897 to a hardware wholesaler and a schoolteacher, the young Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel had toyed with the notion of acting, but kept his focus more grounded.
After enlisting for a year’s service in World War I, where he rose to the rank of artillery lieutenant, young “Fred” finished earning his degree in economics from the University of Wisconsin, then headed to Manhattan to begin a career in banking. Within a year, though, he had a near-fatal bout of appendicitis, and an ex-actress landlady’s tales of stage life shared during his recuperation changed his focus. He soon made his professional stage debut in Baltimore, spending the early 20’s pursuing whatever opportunities he could find, be it film extra and print modeling work in New York or stock work elsewhere.
Citing that 12 was his lucky number, the neophyte actor adopted his stage name by shortening his middle name by a couple of letters and removing a syllable of his mother’s maiden name of Marcher. As the decade progressed, March wed actress Florence Eldridge, his cast mate in a Denver production; they’d frequently work together on stage and screen over the course of their lifelong union. 1927 saw him land his first Broadway lead, in The Devil and the Cheese; the following year brought his entree to Hollywood. His flamboyantly funny turn as a John Barrymore manqué with the Los Angeles touring production of The Royal Family earned the notice of Paramount, who signed March to a five-year pact.
His starring debut came opposite Ruth Chatterton in 1929’s The Dummy, and the studio kept him busy over the ensuing year with efforts such as The Wild Party, The Studio Murder Mystery, Sarah and Son, and Manslaughter. His big-screen reprise of his name-making opportunity in 1930’s The Royal Family of Broadway brought March his first career Best Actor Oscar nomination; still, the actor fretted about being typed as a light farceur.
That would change the following year, as his memorable work as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde brought him his first Academy Award. Ironically, his winning performance as Robert Louis Stevenson’s title characters actually put him in a tie with another nominee: Wallace Beery, for the father-son boxing drama The Champ. What’s more, both men had adopted children that year, a fact Fredric noted when he later quipped, “It seems a little odd that we were both given awards for the best male performance of the year.”
From 1932 to 1934 March would work through his Paramount deal–with such notable works as the racy pre-Code drama Merrily We Go to Hell; Cecil B. DeMille’s Ancient Rome epic The Sign of the Cross; The Eagle and the Hawk with Cary Grant; Noel Coward’s Design for Living, with Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins; and a title turn in the fantasy/drama Death Takes a Holiday–and would then freelance through the long balance of his movie career, allowing him a choice of projects and leeway for frequent returns to the New York stage. Key performances during this period would include the costume dramas The Affairs of Cellini (as the 16th-century Italian sculptor); The Barretts of Wimpole Street (as poet Robert Browning); and as ex-convict Jean Valjean in the 1935 film version of Les Miserables, considered by some to be the best screen translation of Victor Hugo’s timeless novel. That same year, Anna Karenina paired him with Greta Garbo, whose great looks he took in stride and commented, “Actually, I was not overwhelmed by Garbo’s beauty. I think at that time women were more attracted to her than men.” A third Oscar nod came in 1937 for his turn as the fading actor of the original A Star Is Born, a Technicolor triumph co-starring Janet Gaynor.
March finished the ’30s at the top of his game, co-starring with Katharine Hepburn in John Ford’s 1936 historical biopic Mary of Scotland, and Warner Brothers nabbed him later that year for their period piece Anthony Adverse, opposite Olivia de Havilland. Producer David O. Selznick signed him to star as the fast-talking New York reporter who turns “radium poisoning victim” Carole Lombard into a national celebrity in William Wellman’s 1937 screwball comedy gem Nothing Sacred. He then reunited with C.B. DeMille to play legendary pirate Jean Lafitte in The Buccaneer (1938), a film the director would remake 20 years later with Yul Brynner in the role.
The actor entered the ’40s–and his forties–still busy on both stage and screen. He co-starred with Joan Crawford (who he would sum up years later as “a nice person, but a real movie star” who “brought her own music to the set, a whole entourage…to get her into the proper mood for the scenes”) in 1940’s Susan and God for MGM, and the following year would be featured such other popular leading ladies as Margaret Sullavan (So Ends Our Night), Loretta Young (Bedtime Story) and Veronica Lake (I Married a Witch, the precursor to TV’s Bewitched). But the height of the WWII years saw much of Fredric’s energies spent in support of the war effort and servicemen. By 1944, he was again hitting his stride, playing the title author in The Adventures of Mark Twain and trying to rehabilitate a young German boy indoctrinated by Nazi propaganda in Tomorrow, The World. 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives, his personal favorite of his films, brought March a second Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of a middle-aged serviceman struggling to re-acclimate to post-war home life.
The famously progressive-leaning March, however, lost career traction in HUAC-leery Hollywood over the ensuing years, and focused more on stage appearances. His starring turn in Ruth Gordon’s drama Years Ago earned him the first-ever Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play in 1947 (although he would once again share an acting trophy, this time with José Ferrer for Cyrano de Bergerac). Live theater and TV became his primary outlets, leading to an interesting tidbit of television minutiae when, in 1954, he appeared on The Shower of Stars series as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, assisted by old friend Basil Rathbone as Marley’s Ghost. Then, in an episode of his 1958 series Fredric March Presents Tales from Dickens, he presented another version of the Yuletide favorite, this time serving as narrator while Rathbone played Scrooge.
March still kept his hand in filmmaking at this time, though, with his performance in a role he had rejected on Broadway–Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman–bringing him his last career nomination from the Academy in 1951. Through the rest of the ’50s, March picked his spots on the big screen and consistently delivered memorable work in such titles as Man on a Tightrope, for director Elia Kazan, and Executive Suite and The Bridges at Toko-Ri, both with William Holden (who, when interviewed years later, would say that March and Spencer Tracy were his acting ideals). 1955 saw him play an everyday husband and father (a role originally planned for Tracy) who must square off with escaped prisoner Humphrey Bogart in The Desperate Hours. To help pass the time during breaks in production of the tense hostage drama, he and Bogie played chess every day.
Alexander the Great–which cast Fredric as Philip of Macedonia, father of title world-conqueror Richard Burton–followed in 1956, and later that year he was paired with Gregory Peck in the corporate drama The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. 1959’s Middle of the Night saw an aging March still effective deliver Paddy Chayefsky’s well-crafted lines, among them “Listen, sonny boy. Love, no matter how shabby it may seem, is still a beautiful thing. Everything else is nothing.” He also garnered a second Lead Actor Tony for his performance as James Tyrone, Sr. in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (a role that would be played by Ralph Richardson in the 1962 film version).
As the ’60s ran their course, the now-elder statesman’s film work was sporadic but memorable. As Matthew Harrison Brady (a character based on real-life politico William Jennings Bryan), he butted heads with Spencer Tracy’s Henry Drummond (modeled on attorney Clarence Darrow) in Stanley Kramer’s still-timely 1960 courtroom drama Inherit the Wind. Another politicially-themed performance came in 1964, when he played a U.S. president faced with a possible coup by high-ranking Pentagon officials, in the Cold War suspense classic Seven Days in May, which co-starred Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Ava Gardner. Recalling his experience with March, director John Frankenheimer dubbed him “the finest human being I’ve ever known, as well as the best actor I ever worked with.”
After appearing with Paul Newman in the 1967 western Hombre and Jim Brown and George Kennedy in 1970’s racially charged drama …tick…tick…tick, a bout with prostate cancer had March ready to retire. Seven Days in May director Frankenheimer coaxed him back for one last hurrah as saloonkeeper Harry Hope in the 1973 American Film Theatre production of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. March passed away two years later at age 77. The stage and screen legend left some good advice for those to follow when he said, “Keep interested in others; keep interested in the wide and wonderful world. Then in a spiritual sense you will always be young.” He also left a suggested epitaph for his tombstone, which wasn’t used: “This is just my lot.”
Now, see the charisma and presence that made Fredric March a born star, in the original theatrical trailer for 1937’s A Star Is Born: