Donald Crisp was born George William Crisp in Bow, London, in a family home on 27 July 1882. He was the youngest of ten children (four boys and six girls) born to Elizabeth (née Christy) and James Crisp, a labourer. He was educated locally and in 1901 was living with his parents and working as a driver of a horse-drawn vehicle.
Crisp made a number of claims about his early life that were eventually proven false decades after his death. He claimed that he was born in 1880 in Aberfeldy in Perthshire, Scotland, and even went so far as to maintain a Scottish accent throughout his life in Hollywood. In fact, he had no connections to Scotland, but in 1996, a plaque commemorating him was unveiled by Scottish comedian Jimmy Logan in Crisp's supposed hometown of Aberfeldy. He claimed on alternative occasions that his father was a cattle farmer, a country doctor or a royal physician to King Edward VII. He also claimed that he was educated at Eton and Oxford, and that he served as a trooper in the 10th Hussars in the Boer War.
While travelling on the SS Carmania to the United States in July 1906, Crisp's singing talents during a ship's concert caught the attention of operaimpresario John C. Fisher, who immediately offered him a job with his company. Crisp spent his first year in New York City in the 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 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 GeneralUlysses 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; the actress was only 11 years his junior).
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 film The Runaway Bride (1930).[better source needed]
Crisp was an active and important liaison between the film industry and outside business interests. His extensive experience in business, the military and entertainment, including being a production and studio executive, lent itself 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, he appeared in as many as 400 two-reel and feature-length productions, perhaps a great deal more. John Carradine, who counted over 500 films to his own credit (the Internet Movie Database records over 300), told his son Keith, who repeated the story during a 2018 Gilbert Gottfriedpodcast, that only Donald Crisp had appeared in more movies. Crisp's final screen role was as Grandpa Spencer alongside former film co-stars Henry 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.
Crisp was in his eighties by the time he quit acting entirely, continuing to work long after it was financially necessary simply because he enjoyed it. He was married three times. In 1912, he married actress Helen Pease, and they remained together until her death the following year. In 1917, he married Marie Stark, whom he divorced in 1920; she went on to act in silent films as Marie Crisp. In 1932, he married film screenwriterJane Murfin, whom he divorced in 1944. He died in 1974, a few months short of his 92nd birthday, due to complications from a series of strokes. 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 is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.