Born Douglas Elton Thomas Ulman in Denver, Colorado, he was raised by his mother after his parents divorced. He attended Colorado School of Mines and Harvard University, and worked in a hardware store and as a clerk in a Wall Street office before appearing on Broadway in 1902. In 1907, he married Anna Beth Sully, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist; they had one son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, and divorced before 1920.
In 1915 he moved to Hollywood. While traveling with Charlie Chaplin in a War Bonds drive, he met and fell in love with Mary Pickford, whom he married in 1920 and divorced in 1936. He, Pickford, Chaplin and D. W. Griffith formed United Artists studios in 1919. He was a founder of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences and produced its first awards program.
In 1936, Fairbanks married his third and last wife, a British divorcée, Sylvia, Lady Ashley (1906-1977, née Edith Louise Hawkes). A lingerie model turned showgirl, Sylvia Fairbanks would later become a wife of Clark Gable. David Niven described her as "a ravishing blond beauty, outspoken and impeccable sense of humour. She was a selfish woman. She was a man?s woman. She was devoted to the great indoors, to her milky white skin, her flawless complexion, loathed the thought of animals being slaughtered, was happiest among the chattering chic of café society and owned a Chihuahua the size of a mouse called Minnie. She adored spending money."