Donald Crisp

Active - 1910 - 1994  |   Born - Jul 27, 1880   |   Died - May 26, 1974   |   Genres - Drama, Romance

Share on

Biography by Bruce Eder

If Donald Crisp had any peer as an actor, it was probably his fellow Scotsman Finlay Currie, who made a virtual star career (albeit mostly in England) playing the same kind of dour roles that Crisp often essayed -- but even that only overlapped with one aspect of Crisp's career. An Oscar-winning character actor whose career spanned three generations, from the 1910s to the 1960s, Crisp was also unique as a director and, before that, an assistant and colleague to such figures as D.W. Griffith -- and none of those activities even touched upon his most influential role in the movie business.

Donald Crisp was born in Abberfeldy, Scotland, in 1880, and was educated at Oxford. He served as a trooper in the 10th Hussars in the Boer War, which allowed him to cross paths with a young Winston Churchill, before emigrating to the United States in 1906. While on the boat coming over, he chanced to sing in a ship's concert and impressed John C. Fisher, an opera impresario, sufficiently to offer him a job with his company as both a member of the chorus and a handyman. It was while touring with the company in the United States and Cuba that Crisp became interested in theater. By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, he was working as a stage manager for George M. Cohan, and soon after that he met D.W. Griffith, a former stage actor who had developed a yen for making movies; Crisp accompanied the legendary director to Hollywood in 1912. After serving as Griffith's assistant and watching him work, Crisp -- who portrayed General Ulysses S. Grant in The Birth of a Nation -- became a director in his own right. He later told an interviewer that he gave up directing because he wearied of being forced to do favors for studio production chiefs by employing their relatives in his films, so he returned to acting.

In between working for Griffith and producers such as William H. Clune, Crisp managed to return to England to serve in army intelligence during the First World War. After returning to Hollywood, he went to work for Adolph Zukor at his Famous Players company in 1919, which was later to become Paramount Pictures; Zukor employed Crisp as an executive, charged with setting up the studio's operations in Europe. He later worked as a director for Douglas Fairbanks Sr. on such movies as Son of Zorro. Crisp's most visible role to the public during the silent era, however, may well have come right after his military service, as the brutal villain in Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919). With the advent of sound, Crisp moved into acting entirely, and across the 1930s and '40s he essayed a wide range of roles, most memorably as the taciturn but loving father in John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941) (for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award), one of the put-upon crew in Frank Lloyd's Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), and Doctor Kenneth in William Wyler's Wuthering Heights (1939). Crisp was equally good in lovable or sinister roles; during the same period in which he was playing charming old codgers in National Velvet and Lassie Come Home, he was also memorable as Commander Beach, the tormented presumptive grandfather to Gail Russell's Stella Meredith in Lewis Allen's The Uninvited (1944), who dies at the hands of the vengeful spirit of his own daughter.

All of this activity, which included as many as nine movies in a single year, didn't prevent Crisp from contributing to the war effort, once the Second World War came along -- by then, he held the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army reserves. What few people outside of the movie community realized during this period was that, beyond his work as an actor, Crisp was also one of the most influential people in Hollywood, wielding more power than most directors and even more than many producers (most of whom were, in the end, just hired executives). He was one of Hollywood's gatekeepers, one of the responsible adults who worked to make the business side of the industry work while stars of the era paraded their egos and vices before the cameras. Specifically, Crisp's long experience as not only an actor but also as a director and a production and studio executive made him ideal as an advisor to Bank of America -- one of the leading sources of working capital for the movie business (whose life-blood was loans) -- on which movies to make. He was on the bank's advisory board for decades, including a stint as its chairman, and had the ear of its directors, and many of the major movies financed by the bank in the 1930s and '40s got their most important approval from Crisp. He was also, not surprisingly, one of the more well-off members of the acting community, his banker's sobriety and clear-headedness allowing Crisp to make good investments, especially in real estate, across the decades that paid off well for him and his wife of 25 years, screenwriter Jane Murfin. Crisp continued acting right up through 1960 and Walt Disney's Pollyanna (he'd worked for Mary Pickford, who'd played in and produced the silent version of the same story 45 years earlier), mostly because he liked to work. Crisp passed away in 1974 at the ripe old age of 93, one of the most revered and beloved senior members of the acting community.

Movie Highlights

See Full Filmography