How Mary Pickford Became Hollywood’s First Million-Dollar Actress Without Saying A Word

June 24 — On this day in 1916, silent film actress Mary Pickford became the first actress in Hollywood to sign a million-dollar contract with Adolf Zukor, who would later found Paramount Pictures. Over the course of her 50-year career, Pickford would go on to co-found the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio with Douglas Fairbanks and the United Artists film studio. She was also one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

a portrait of silent film star mary pickford.
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Born Gladys Louise Smith in Toronto in 1892, Pickford began acting as early as age seven when a theatrical stage manager named Mr. Murphy was a boarder in her family home. Murphy suggested that the youngster and her sister partake in theatre. From that point on, acting became a family enterprise as Pickford and her siblings toured the U.S. by rail with third-rate theatre companies.

In 1907, Pickford landed a supporting role on Broadway’s The Warrens of Virginia, in which one of the producers suggested the actress change her name to “Mary Pickford.” She finally hit her big break in 1909, earning $10 a day acting in nickelodeon films made by the Biograph company in New York. That year, she acted in a total of 51 films.

She eventually moved to Los Angeles with the company and had starred in so many of their films that she became identified as “The Girl with the Golden Curls.” From there, she would switch back and forth between Biograph and Independent Moving Pictures Company (which would later get absorbed by Universal) until she returned to Broadway to perform A Good Little Devil. This was a turning point in her career and in 1913, Pickford joined forces with Adolf Zukor to film a silent version of the play.

She became known for her work in comedy dramas, especially 1914’s Hearts Adrift, which was the first film to feature Pickford’s name before the title on movie marquees. By 1916, Zukor already had the tools to start his own studio and he signed Pickford to a record-breaking salary of $10,000 a week. In addition to giving her full authority over the production of her own films, Pickford was also compensated half of all the films’ profits – a guarantee of at least $1 million.