With extraordinary natural talent and a penchant for carving out his own path, Fredric March made an impact on Hollywood that has not been duplicated. Along the way, he garnered an astounding collection of awards and nominations, proving his status as one of the great actors of Hollywood’s early era.
Born Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel, the stalwart son of John Bickel and Cora Marcher, his was a very ordinary mid-western upbringing. He had no thought of acting as a boy, instead graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and becoming a banker. But after an emergency appendectomy, young Fredrick began to question whether he was, in fact, following the right career path and he decided to make a change.
By 1920, he had moved to New York and begun working as an extra in movies under the new name Fredric March, a nod to his mother’s maiden name. In 1926, he made his Broadway debut and soon he had moved on to Hollywood, where he signed with Paramount Pictures. In a unique break from tradition, March became the rare Hollywood star who avoided signing a long term contract with any studio, instead opting to be a free agent and choose his own projects. Though that gamble rarely worked out for most actors in those days, March was somehow able to find success.
The reason for that success was clear early on, as March’s talent won over audiences and critics alike. After a string of roles in the late 20’s, March picked up his first Oscar nomination for his send-up of the legendary
John Barrymore in 1930’s “The Royal Family of Broadway”. He continued to veer between comedic and dramatic roles, adapting to both with equal skill. He starred in everything from “Laughter” (1930) to “Honor Among Lovers” (1931).
In 1932 he won the first of two Oscars for his portrayal of the noble lead character and his demented alter ego in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. He continued to work non-stop through the 30’s and into the 40’s, dividing his time between movies and the stage, always with talent and panache. In Hollywood, he appeared in a slew of movies, including “Les Miserables” (1935), where he played the troubled hero Jean Valjean opposite his real life wife, Florence Eldridge. He and Eldridge would appear together in a total of six films as well as several television shows.
He won his second Oscar in 1946 for “The Best Years of Our Lives” a dramatic tour de force in which he portrayed one of three WWII veterans who return home to find their lives irrevocably changed. The following year, he made Broadway history as one of the first winners of the newly established Tony Awards, for his performance in Ruth Gordon’s “Years Ago”. He shared the distinction with fellow Best Actor winner Jose Ferrer and best actresses Helen Hayes and Ingrid Bergman.
He continued to divide his time between stage and screen, with the occasional television appearance thrown in once that medium took off. In 1949, the playwright Arthur Miller wanted March to take on the lead role in the film version of his play “Death of a Salesman”. March refused the role and it went instead to Lee J. Cobb. March soon regretted his decision and he corrected it, playing the role of Willy Loman in the 1951 Columbia Pictures version. His performance would garner him yet another Oscar nomination.
Though age slowed down many of Hollywood’s most notable names, March seemed to be impervious to its effects. Not only did he continue to rack up an impressive list of performances, he also continued to receive critical praise and awards to go along with it. In 1957, ten years after receiving his first Tony, he won a second for his portrayal of James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” He would be nominated one more time, in 1962, for Paddy Chayefsky’s “Gideon”.
On screen, his days as a leading man had begun to ebb and he segued easily into character roles. His performance opposite
Spencer Tracy in “Inherit the Wind” (1960) was one of the most memorable of his career, showing that time had not slowed him down one bit. With the dawn of a new decade, the roles became more sparse. He appeared in “Hombre” (1967) and “tick…tick…tick” (1970), but he was struggling to find work.
In 1970, he underwent surgery for prostate cancer and that seemed to signal the end of his illustrious career, but Fredric March was not about to let cancer side track him when little else in his life had. He came back for one final performance, as bartender Harry Hope in “The Iceman Cometh” (1973), and not surprisingly, he made it a notable one with his tremendous talent.
He finally succumbed to the cancer two years later at the age of 77 but not before orchestrating one of the more unique and illustrious careers in Hollywood history. And what made it most remarkable was that, to the end, he did it his way. Fredric March was not one to follow the beaten path and his legions of fans reaped the ultimate reward with a film legacy that is truly incomparable.
# Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey. Susan is a regular contributor to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.