Francis Xavier Bushman was born in Baltimore, Maryland. As a young man, he joined the Maryland Athletic Club and began the body building that developed his muscular physique. He cited Eugen Sandow as one of his influences. He worked as a sculptor's model in New York City, often posing in the nude for the classes.
In 1902, Bushman married Josephine Fladung, a seamstress. By the beginning of his film career, they had five children. In 1918, Bushman became the center of a national scandal, when his affair with costar Beverly Bayne became public. His wife divorced him, and three days before the divorce was final, he married Bayne; they later had a son. Bushman and the studios he worked for, Essanay and Metro Pictures, had kept his marriage secret, fearing it would affect his popularity. He eventually would be married four times.
Bushman retained the talented services of Harry Reichenbach as his agent. When Bushman noted that he was slated to star in Ben-Hur, Reichenbach had an idea to increase his marketability. He took Bushman to see studio executives from the railway station and dropped pennies to the street from his pocket. People followed them, picking up the coins as they went. The studio executives got the impression that Bushman was very popular and cast him as Messala. Bushman was worried that playing the villain would harm his career, and he asked William S. Hart (who had played the part on stage for years) for advice. Hart's said, "Take it. It's the best part in the play!" Unlike Ramón Novarro, the star of the picture, Bushman knew how to drive a team of horses and a chariot. When Ben Hur was remade in 1959, Charlton Heston had to learn the skill and quipped, "The only man in Hollywood who can drive a chariot is Francis X. Bushman — and he's too old!" Bushman was sixteen years older than Novarro, though their characters were supposed to have been children together.
That role might have elevated Bushman's career to stardom, except for allegedly being blacklisted by Louis B. Mayer of the Metro Goldwyn Mayer film studio. Film historians write that when Mayer visited Bushman's home, the valet, not knowing him, had refused him entrance. This imagined insult angered Mayer.
At the peak of his career, Bushman was advertised as "The Handsomest Man in the World". He was also known as "the King of Photoplay" or "the King of Movies", before those were later attached to Clark Gable. During that time, he was married to Bayne and living with her in their Maryland compound "Bushmoor" with roughly thirty pet dogs and (allegedly) the largest private collection of songbirds in the world.
Much of Bushman's silent film work has been lost to the ravages of film decomposition. Other than Messala in Ben-Hur, he is not well known for any other silent film role even to silent film buffs. Clips of parts of films may show up in the occasional silent film documentary. Thus it is difficult for modern film audiences to appreciate the full breadth of his silent film career.
Bushman was paid large salaries during his screen career, and donated his home and the land upon which it stood on Hollywood Boulevard to Sid Grauman who erected his famous Chinese Theater upon it. But his fortune was wiped out in the great crash of 1929, and his career as a movie star had run its course. Bushman eked out a living taking small roles in pictures and attempting to run a few small businesses. On viewing one of his early films, Bushman is said to have remarked, "My God, look at that! I'm putting all my emotion into my chin!"
After his film career had waned, Bushman made his broadcasting mark on the CBS Radio network's long-running dramatic serial entitled Those We Love. In the soap opera, which ran from 1938 to 1945, Bushman played the role of John Marshall, a father of the twins (played by Richard Cromwell and Nan Grey). Robert Cummings rounded out the cast.
In later years, he made guest appearances on television, playing roles on series such as Peter Gunn, Make Room for Daddy, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and Dr. Kildare. In 1956, Bushman appeared in a Burns and Allen episode (#73) where he played himself. He made three guest appearances on Perry Mason, twice as the murder victim in two 1960 episodes: Lawrence King in "The Case of the Flighty Father," and Courtney Jeffers in "The Case of the Nine Dolls." Bushman made two science fiction films 12 to the Moon (1960) released by Columbia Pictures and The Phantom Planet released by American International Pictures (1961).
In 1966, Bushman guest-starred on a two-part episode of Batman. Both Bushman and his The Grip of the Yukon co-star, Neil Hamilton, appeared in the episode—their first such reunion in 38 years. Bushman's role—as a wealthy collector of silent pictures and promoter of a silent film festival—was one of his last appearances on camera.
Francis X. Bushman died from a heart attack, in Pacific Palisades, California, on August 23, 1966. He was interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery. Somewhat fittingly, one of his last television appearances (filmed only weeks prior to his death) had been as a silent film collector menaced by the Riddler on the Batman TV show. After his death an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, with Bushman as "Old Man", was released in October 1966.