May 22, 2000 12:00 PM

I never tried to compete with him,” Douglas Fairbanks Jr. said last year of his swashbuckling movie star father. “To start with, he was the most physically agile person I knew. He could climb anything.” The younger Fairbanks, who died in Manhattan last week of Parkinson’s disease at 90, made his own remarkable climb, appearing in nearly 80 films, including The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and Gunga Din (1939). “He had an enormous, blazing smile,” says actor Christopher Lee of his friend’s appeal onscreen and off. “It wasn’t put on. It was totally natural.”

Women noticed. He married rising starlet Joan Crawford in 1929 (they divorced four years later) and had an affair with Marlene Dietrich. Using his celebrity clout, he became a U.S. goodwill ambassador before going to war. As a naval officer from 1941 to 1946, Fairbanks was highly decorated for, among other things, leading a British flotilla in the North Atlantic. Says his friend historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: “He stood for gallantry in a notably ungallant time.” Fairbanks served under Adm. Lord Louis Mountbatten, who introduced him to his nephew Prince Philip and the future Queen Elizabeth. They would become guests at the London home Fairbanks shared with his wife, Mary Lee Hartford, and their three daughters.

After Mary Lee’s death in 1988, Fairbanks married former QVC contractor Vera Shelton in 1991. He served on boards from the Motion Picture Academy to the Council on Foreign Relations but never lost his love for the greasepaint. After seeing 1993’s Jurassic Park, he sent Steven Spielberg a fan letter. “He wrote back and said, ‘When I got your letter I was so excited, I put it up on my wall,’ ” recalled Fairbanks last year. “So I wrote back: ‘I just put your letter up on my wall!’ ”

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