Birthplace: Racine, WI
You Know Him As: An actor most active during the ‘20s-’40s for such movies as “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), “Inherit the Wind” (1960), “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1931), “The Iceman Cometh” (1973) and “A Star is Born” (1937).
Did you know? In 1924 March met and married Ellis Baker, a dancer in one of the local shows. However, their marriage lasted only three years.
On Aug. 31, 1897 Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel was born in Racine to parents John Frederick Bickel and Cora Brown Marcher Bickel. He was the youngest of four children. His siblings were Harold Leroy (1887), Jack M. (1892) and Rosina Elizabeth (1889). John Bickel was president and treasurer of Racine Hardware Manufacturing Company, which manufactured both wagon hardware and office supplies.
Little Ernest Bickel had a happy middle-class childhood. He attended Winslow Grammar School (established in 1855) and was even voted class president in his final year there. While at Racine High School, graduate of 1915, he was also nominated class president.
With the goal of becoming a businessman, Bickel attended UW-Madison to pursue a degree in finance and economics. He was also a member of Alpha Delta Phi, the fifth-oldest fraternity in the United States and the fourth-oldest social fraternity. Bickel stayed for two years before enlisting in the Army in 1917, when the U.S. entered WWI; he eventually rose in rank up to artillery lieutenant. After the war ended, he returned to Madison, where he was once again nominated senior class president, became involved in track, managed the football team and was active in dramatics all at the same time.
In 1920, Bickel realized his dream of entering business, as he began a career in banking at First National City Bank (now Citibank) in Racine and then transferred to New York. He was working in New York when he became ill with appendicitis and underwent an appendectomy. This change of events prompted him to re-evaluate his life, after which he decided to leave business and instead pursue the stage. Bickel made his debut that same year in “Deburau” in Baltimore; at the same time he was also being cast as movie extras for silent movies filmed in New York. After receiving advice from friend and director John Cromwell, he changed his name to a shorter Fredric March on New Year’s Day 1924, which was reminiscent of his mother’s maiden name, “Marcher.”
To advertise this change to agents, he sent this message: “This is 1924,/ I won’t be Bickel any more./ Fredric March is now my name,/ Wishing everyone the same,/ Happy New Year!”
March later reminisced on Imdb.com, “I liked the name Frederick Bickel, and I wish now I had left it as it was. After all, Theodore Bikel, whose name was similar though spelled differently, didn’t change his, and he did all right.”
Shortly after, in 1926, he landed a position at Elitch’s Gardens summer stock theater in Denver. While working there, he met an actress named Florence Eldridge. The two hit it off right away and married in May of 1927. Instead of a honeymoon, they joined the first national tour of the Theater Guild. March appeared alongside his wife in “The Studio Murder Mystery”, “Les Misérables”, “Another Part of the Forest”, “An Act of Murder”, “Christopher Columbus” and “Inherit the Wind.” On TV, she appeared with him in the “Producers’ Showcase Presentation of ‘Dodsworth’” in 1956. Fredric and Florence adopted two children, Penelope in 1932 and Anthony in 1934.
In 1929, March parodied John Barrymore in the stage piece “The Royal Family.” This launched him into the public’s attention and even landed him his first acting contract for five years with Paramount Pictures. “The Royal Family” was such a success that it was adapted for the big screen the following year under the name “The Royal Family of Broadway,” which earned him an Academy Award nomination.
While with Paramount, he appeared in such successful films as “Les Miserables” (1935), “Anna Karenina” (1935, as Vronsky to Greta Garbo’s Anna) and “Anthony Adverse” (1936). But after this contract was over March never again signed a longterm contract, preferring the ability to select his films picture by picture.
“Stardom is just an uneasy seat on top of a tricky toboggan,” says March on imdb.com. “Being a star is merely perching at the head of the downgrade. A competent featured player can last a lifetime. A star, a year or two. There’s all that agony of finding suitable stories, keeping in character, maintaining illusion. Then the undignified position of hanging on while your popularity is declining.”
March became first and only performer to win the Best Actor Academy Award for a portrayal of a monster in a film in 1932 for his performance in “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.” Due to a tie, he shared this Oscar with Wallace Beery. The two men had both recently adopted children. March joked on imdb.com, “It seems a little odd that we were both given awards for the best male performance of the year.”
He was again nominated for “A Star is Born” in 1937 and “Death of a Salesman” in 1951 and won it for “The Best Years of Our Lives” in 1946, which was the biggest money-maker of the ‘40s. That same year he also tied with Jose Ferrer for the first-ever Best Actor Tony Award for his role in “Years Ago”- becoming the only actor ever to win the highest honors of stage and screen in the same year. Helen Hayes and Ingrid Bergman also share the honor of winning the first acting Tony Awards when the ceremony was established in 1947.
Another honor came when he became Vice President of the Screen Actor’s Guild, which formed in 1933.
For 20 years he was able to land top roles in Hollywood and was listed as the fifth highest paid individual in America in 1937, earning half of a million dollars, mainly because of superb performances in “Nothing Sacred” with Carole Lombard and as a fading screen idol in “A Star Is Born.” He did return to the stage and was active in several more Broadway plays. He won Tony Awards in 1947 for “Years Ago” and in 1957 for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” He was a powerhouse actor, reputed to be one of the best actors of his day through his continual success in stage and on film. His many achievements were honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame which is located at 1620 Vine Street.
The Red Scare during WWII hit close to home with the Marches, who were accused of being Communist for many years. Fredric March even had to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1938, where he denied being a Communist. In 1940 he was again accused of Communist leanings by John L. Leech. In 1948 the Marches won a libel action against “Counter-Attack” magazine, which had printed similar allegations. A supposed tie to Communists resulted in March suffering a blacklisting during the 50s, and he appeared less and less on screen. However, March had earned enough star quality that he was able to carefully select his roles to appear in superior movies.
The State Department honored the Marches in 1960 by sending them on performance tours abroad, after March received the honor of reading Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to a joint session of Congress on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth the previous year. President Kennedy also called on him for a dramatic reading at a White House dinner two years later for himself and his first lady.
Many of the movies March became famous for were re-made a few decades later and diminished his earlier rolls, such as “A Star is Born,” “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Les Miserables.”
He reportedly was one of the best things in the racial drama “Tick, Tick, Tick” (1970), after which March intended to retire. Shortly after he underwent surgery for prostate cancer, which made retirement seem like a good idea. Despite poor health, he still made it back to the University of Wisconsin for the dedication of the Fredric March Theater in 1971.
“I have earnestly endeavored to perform my own share without fuss or temperament,” March reminisced on imdb.com. “An actor has no more right to be temperamental than a bank clerk. Possibly a very sane bringing up as a child has helped me to retain my sense of proportion in these matters.”
However, he was persuaded by Frankenheimer in 1972 to do one more movie, “The Iceman Cometh” (1973). Ironically, co-star Robert Ryan was entering the final stages of lung cancer, so the film was the last for both March and Ryan. This was an excellent finale to March’s illustrious career, and he once again received rave reviews for his performance. March died in Los Angeles, Calif., in 1975 at the age of 77 from cancer; he had been married to actress Florence Eldridge for 48 years.
Biography by Katie Doucet
Childhood Home: 1635 College Avenue
School/Training: Winslow Grammar School, Racine High School (Class of 1915), University of Wisconsin, United States Army
Trivia His house in Beverly Hills CA was also the first home of superstar couple Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.