Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel was born August 31, 1897, in Racine, Wisconsin, the youngest son of a hardware manufacturer and church deacon. At an early age, "Fred" (as he was called) showed off his talent for mimicry, impersonating passersby in front of his father's business. Upon graduating from Racine High School, Fred enrolled at the University of Wisconsin to major in economics.
After two years at school, World War I broke out, and Bickel joined the Army, becoming a lieutenant. After the war, he returned to school, where he managed the football team and became a lead actor in both the school's theater group and their vaudeville squad. He also ran track and was class president his senior year. Upon graduating he took up a job as a teller at a prominent bank in New York City. It was there that the event would occur that would change his life forever.
While working in the bank, Fred was suddenly seized with an excruciating pain. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed as having an inflamed appendix. His case was singularly special in that it was preparing to burst at any minute, a potentially fatal event. After the successful operation to remove the damaged vessel, Bickel began to rethink his priorities. His love of the stage had been overpowering, and he decided that life was too short to simply sit in a bank. And so, he became an actor.
After acting in a few shorts and in off-Broadway plays, Fred Bickel followed his agent's advice and changed his name to Fredric March on New Years' Day, 1924. That same year he met and married Ellis Baker, a dancer in one of the local shows. Their marriage lasted three years. In the meantime, Fred became a member of the rather prestigious Theater's Guild, a traveling troupe of actors. It was here that he met Broadway star Florence Eldridge, and the two were married in 1927. The next year, while performing in Los Angeles, Fredric was spotted by film executives, who signed him to a one-year contract at the studios.
Over the next three years, Fredric took a number of bit parts before finally being allowed to shine in The Royal Family of Broadway, an adaptation of a play that he had starred in a few years earlier. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance, and in 1931 he was given one of the most challenging roles in his career. Or rather, two of the most challenging roles: that of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
For his commanding performance as the tortured split personality March received his first Oscar. He was now one of Hollywood's leading men, and he took roles in a number of successful movies, including the Cecil B. DeMille Roman drama The Sign of the Cross and the dark comedy Death Takes a Holiday. In 1934, he played Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, and the following year starred opposite Greta Garbo in Anna Karenina.
When not acting, March enjoyed photography and tennis. He served as vice-president of the Screen Actor's Guild for many years during its infancy. He and Florence adopted two children, Anthony and Penelope, and eventually bought a farm house in Connecticut to raise their family. In 1940, Fredric and Florence were both subjected to accusations of being Communists, a charge that Fredric denied vehemently and frequently.
By 1937, March was one of the highest-paid men in America. He returned to Broadway in 1938, but New York stage critics sniffed their nose at the movie star, and his play, "Yr. Obedient Husband", flopped. Still, he earned another Oscar nomination for his role as Norman Maine, washed up actor, in 1937's A Star Is Born, but lost the award due to MGM head honcho's Louis B. Mayer's string-pulling.
He continued to star on both Broadway and in movies throughout the 1940s, opening in Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer-winning "The Skin of Our Teeth" and winning another Oscar as a war hero in 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives. That same year he won his first Tony Award for his work in the play "Years Ago", becoming the first actor to win both awards in the same year.
By the 1950s, Fredric's role in Hollywood had diminished slightly, though he continued to star in laudable films such as 1952's Executive Suite. He also won another Tony in 1956 for his performance in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night", and became a frequent guest on television game shows and talk shows. In 1959, he was given the great honor of reading the Gettysburg Address before a joint session of Congress on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln's 150th birthday. He was also a frequent guest of the Kennedy White House, and received many doctoral degrees from universities throughout the country.
In 1971, the University of Wisconsin honored their most famous dramatic student by naming their new theater the Fredric March Theater. Fredric spent the last years of his life traveling with Florence, often to visit their daughter Penny, who lived in Italy. The laudable star passed away April 14, 1975, in his home in Los Angeles due to cancer. He was 77.
For a surprisingly well done tribute to the late actor, visit http://www.geocities.com/fredric_march.