Mary Pickford was a Canadian-born American motion picture actress, co-founder of the film studio United Artists and one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Known as “America’s Sweetheart,” “Little Mary” and “The girl with the curls,” she was one of the Canadian pioneers in early Hollywood and a significant figure in the development of film acting.
Because her international fame was triggered by moving images, she is a watershed figure in the history of modern celebrity. And as one of silent film’s most important performers and producers, her contract demands were central to shaping the Hollywood industry. In consideration of her contributions to American cinema, the American Film Institute named Pickford 24th among the greatest female stars of all time.
Mary Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith in Toronto, Ontario. Her father, John Charles Smith, was the son of English Methodist immigrants, and worked a variety of odd jobs. Her mother, Charlotte Hennessy, was Irish Catholic. She had two younger siblings, Jack and Lottie Pickford, who would also become actors. To please the relatives, Pickford’s mother baptized her in both the Methodist and Catholic churches. She was raised Roman Catholic after her alcoholic father left his family in 1895. He died three years later of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Hennessy, who had worked as a seamstress throughout the separation, began taking in boarders. Through one of these lodgers, the seven-year-old Pickford won a big part at Toronto’s Princess Theatre in a stock company production of The Silver King. She subsequently acted in many melodramas with the Valentine Company in Toronto, capped by the starring role of Little Eva in their production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the most popular play of the 19th century.