Donald Crisp was born in Bow, London, at the family home in Bow (historically known as Stratford-atte-Bow) on 27 July 1882. Some sources say he was born in Aberfeldy, Perthshire, Scotland in 1880, but U.S. Census records indicate the London birthplace and date are correct. He was one of eight children (four boys and four girls) born to James and Elizabeth Crisp. He was educated at the University of Oxford and allegedly at Eton College, though the Eton archivist denies this.
Crisp, who always claimed to be of Scottish descent, served as a trooper in the 10th Hussars in the Boer War. This experience, among other things, allowed him to cross paths with a young Winston Churchill just at the start of Churchill's long political career. According to family memories, Crisp's brother-in-law James Needham provided him with the fare to travel to America in 1906.
While travelling on the ship to America in 1906, Crisp's singing talents during a ship's concert caught the attention of opera impresario John C. Fisher, who immediately offered him a job with his company. He spent his first year in New York in Grand Opera and the following year as a stage director. It was while touring with the company in the United States and Cuba that Crisp first became interested in pursuing a career in the theatre. By 1910, Crisp, now using the name Donald (he retained George as a middle name), was working as a stage manager for the renowned entertainer, composer, playwright and director George M. Cohan. It was during this time he met and befriended film director D.W. Griffith. When Griffith ventured west, to seek his fortune in Hollywood in 1912, Crisp accompanied him.
From 1908 to 1930, Crisp, in addition to directing dozens of films, also appeared in nearly 100 silent films, though many in bit or small parts. One notable exception was his casting by Griffith as General Ulysses S. Grant in Griffith's landmark film The Birth of a Nation in 1915. Another was his role in Griffith's 1919 film Broken Blossoms, as "Battling Burrows", the brutal and abusive father of the film's heroine, Lucy Burrows (played by Lillian Gish).
Crisp worked as an assistant to Griffith for several years and learned much during this time from Griffith, an early master of film story telling who was influential in advancing a number of early techniques, such as cross cutting in editing his films. This experience fostered a similar passion in Crisp to become a director in his own right. His first directing credit was Little Country Mouse, made in 1914. Many directors (and actors) would find themselves turning out a dozen or more films in a single year at this time. Over the next fifteen years, Crisp directed some 70 films in all, most notably The Navigator (1924) with Buster Keaton and Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925) with Douglas Fairbanks.
When asked later by an interviewer why he eventually gave up directing and returned full-time to acting, Crisp commented that directing had become extremely wearisome because he was so often called upon, if not forced, to do favours for studio chiefs by agreeing to employ their relatives in his films. His final directorial effort was the 1930 film The Runaway Bride starring Mary Astor.
While pursuing a dual career in acting and directing, Crisp managed to serve in the war effort against Germany and her allies during the First World War (1914–1918). Between working for Griffith, other producers and his many acting roles, Crisp managed to return to Britain where he served in the army intelligence section. During the Second World War(1939–1945), Crisp again answered the call to duty at a time when his acting career was at its peak. This time, he served in U.S. Army Reserve, where he rose to the rank ofcolonel.
Return to acting
With the advent of sound in films, Crisp abandoned directing and devoted himself entirely to acting after 1930. He became a much sought after character actor. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, he appeared in a wide range of roles alongside some of the era's biggest stars, including Katharine Hepburn in The Little Minister (1934), Charles Laughton andClark Gable in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Bette Davis and Henry Fonda in That Certain Woman (1937), Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights (1939), Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and The Sea Hawk (1940) and Gregory Peck in The Valley of Decision (1945).
A versatile supporting actor, Crisp could be equally good in either lovable or sinister roles. During the same period he was playing loving father figures or charming old codgers in classic films like National Velvet and Lassie Come Home, he also turned in a well received performance as Commander Beach, the tormented presumptive grandfather in Lewis Allen's The Uninvited (1944). Undoubtedly, however, Crisp's most memorable role was as the taciturn but loving father in How Green Was My Valley (1941) directed by John Ford. The film received ten Oscar nominations, winning five, including Best Picture with Crisp winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1941.
Hollywood power broker
While known to audiences as a talented actor and director, few outside the film community realised, then or now, that Crisp was one of the most influential people in Hollywood, wielding more power than most directors, producers and studio executives.
Crisp was an active and important liaison between the film industry and outside business interests. His extensive business, military and entertainment experience, including being a production and studio executive lent themselves well to this task. He became a highly valued adviser whose clear-headed forward thinking proved invaluable to the Bank of America, which was one of the leading sources of working capital for the film industry for many years (an industry whose life blood was loans). Crisp served on the bank's advisory board for several decades, including a stint as its chairman. In this role, he had the ear of its board of directors, and many of the films eventually financed by the bank during the 1930s and 1940s got their most important approval from Crisp.
Later years and legacy
Crisp eventually became one of the more wealthy members of the film industry. His "banker's sobriety", extensive contacts and clarity of thought allowed him to make good investments, particularly in the real estate market. He continued to appear in films throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s. During more than half a century as an actor in both the early silent and later the sound era, he appeared in as many as 400 two-reel and feature-length productions. His final screen role was as Grandpa Spencer alongsideHenry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara in the 1963 film Spencer's Mountain. This film, adapted from the novel by Earl Hamner Jr., was the basis for the 1970s television series The Waltons, and its theme of a proud but struggling rural family was reminiscent of How Green Was My Valley.
Crisp was in his eighties by the time he quit acting entirely, continuing to work long after financially necessary simply because he enjoyed it. He was married twice. He was divorced from his first wife in 1919. He later married film screenwriter Jane Murfin, whom he divorced in 1944. Crisp died in 1974, a few months short of his 92nd birthday, due to complications from a series of strokes.
Crisp can rightly be called a film pioneer. In addition to being one of the premier character actors of his era, he left behind an extensive list of contributions to the film industry he worked to promote for more than fifty years. He was buried in Glendale's Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery.