Donald Crisp
Donald Crisp in 1937
George William Crisp

(1882-07-27)27 July 1882
Died25 May 1974(1974-05-25) (aged 91)
Van Nuys, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
  • Actor
  • producer
  • director
  • screenwriter
Years active1908–1963
Political partyRepublican
  • Helen Pease
    (m. 1912; died 1913)
  • Marie Stark
    (m. 1917; div. 1920)
  • (m. 1932; div. 1944)

Donald William Crisp (27 July 1882 – 25 May 1974) was an English film actor as well as an early producer, director and screenwriter. His career lasted from the early silent film era into the 1960s. He won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1942 for his performance in How Green Was My Valley.[1]

Early life

Donald Crisp was born George William Crisp in Bow, London, in a family home on 27 July 1882.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5] 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,[6][7] and that he served as a trooper in the 10th Hussars in the Boer War.[8][3]

Early career

Still of Crisp in a US Army uniform for his role as General Ulysses S. Grant in D. W. Griffith's silent drama The Birth of a Nation (1915)

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 opera impresario 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.[9] 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. [citation needed]

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; the actress was only 11 years his junior).[10]


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.[11]

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.[12] His final directorial effort was the film The Runaway Bride (1930).[10][better source needed]

Military career

Between working for Griffith and other producers, along with his many acting roles, Crisp managed to return to the U.K., serving in British army intelligence during the First World War (1914–1918).[13][7] Crisp became an American citizen in 1930;[14] during the Second World War (1939–1945), he served in the United States Army Reserve, attaining the rank of colonel.

Return to acting

From trailer for Shining Victory (1941)

With the advent of "talkies", 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) and A Woman Rebels (1936), Charles Laughton and Clark Gable in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Bette Davis and Henry Fonda in That Certain Woman (1937) and Jezebel (1938), 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).[10]

A versatile supporting actor, Crisp could be equally good in 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 1942.[10]

Hollywood power broker

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.[12]

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 Gottfried podcast, 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.[10]

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 screenwriter Jane 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.[15][16]

He was a staunch Republican who campaigned for Thomas Dewey in 1944.[17]

On February 8, 1960, Crisp received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions to the motion pictures industry at 1628 Vine Street.[18][19]

Partial filmography

As actor

As a director

See also


  1. ^ Obituary, Variety, 29 May 1974.
  2. ^ "Master Index of Births registered in England & Wales in July, August, September, 1882". (FreeBMD). ONS. Retrieved 19 April 2015. George William Crisp: Poplar [London]. Folio 1 c. Page 594
  3. ^ a b Lisle Foote (19 November 2014). Buster Keaton's Crew: The Team Behind His Silent Films. McFarland. ISBN 9781476618067. Retrieved 23 July 2018.
  4. ^ "Scots actor Justice outed as Londoner". Scotland on Sunday. Archived from the original on 21 November 2007. Retrieved 23 July 2018.
  5. ^ "Home-town honour for film pioneer Crisp". Sunday Herald. 12 August 1996. Retrieved 23 July 2018.
  6. ^ "Donald Crisp". Retrieved 26 June 2016.
  7. ^ a b "Donald Crisp". IMDb. Retrieved 26 June 2016.
  8. ^ Jewell, Ruth. "Donald Crisp". IMDb. Retrieved 19 April 2015.
  9. ^ Donald Crisp at the Internet Broadway Database
  10. ^ a b c d e Donald Crisp at IMDb
  11. ^ Employment contract with the Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corporation Archived 8 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine,; accessed 9 July 2014.
  12. ^ a b Profile of Donald Crisp, The New York Times; accessed 9 July 2014.
  13. ^ "Soldiers of the Queen – Errol Flynn and Donald Crisp in The Charge of the Light Brigade 1936". Archived from the original on 31 May 2013. Retrieved 26 June 2016.
  14. ^ Foote, Lisle (31 October 2014). Buster Keaton's Crew: The Team Behind His Silent Films. McFarland; 2014. p. 79. ISBN 9780786496839 – via Google Books.
  15. ^ Literature on Donald Crisp,; accessed 9 July 2014.
  16. ^ Foote, Lisle (23 October 2014). Buster Keaton's Crew: The Team Behind His Silent Films. McFarland. ISBN 9780786496839 – via Google Books.
  17. ^ Critchlow, Donald T. (21 October 2013). When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Stars, Studio Moguls, and Big Business Remade American Politics. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107650282 – via Google Books.
  18. ^ "Donald Crisp | Hollywood Walk of Fame". Retrieved 26 June 2016.
  19. ^ "Donald Crisp". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 26 June 2016.