British born Donald Crisp became one of cinema's most reliable and beloved character actors, but few moviegoers who enjoyed his work were likely aware of just how far reaching and involved his career really was. Crisp really hit his stride in the 1930s when he became one of Warner Brothers' most prized contract players, but he had actually already been in the entertainment business for 30 years by that point. After starting off as an opera singer on the East Coast, Crisp journeyed to California and in association with D.W. Griffith, became a seasoned actor and director in the early days of silent features. He also went on to be a key figure in the world of motion picture financing, but continued to accept movie assignments out of his love for performing. The enthusiasm and considerable skill with which he conveyed both dramatic nuance and broad farce kept him of interest to the studios and Crisp enlivened such classics as "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935) and "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1936). In the 1940s, he was an Oscar winner for "How Green Was My Valley" (1942) and provided fine support in such MGM classics as "Lassie Come Home" (1943) and "National Velvet" (1944). Over a career that spanned more than 50 years, Crisp proved to be a venerable performer and, with his wide-ranging background in front of the camera and behind the scenes, was one of the true renaissance men of Golden Age Hollywood.
George William Crisp was born on July 27, 1882 in Bow, London, England. One of eight children, he studied at the University of Oxford and was dispatched to South Africa, where he served with the British military during the Boer War from 1899 to 1902. Crisp traveled to the United States in 1906, where he was involved in the New York opera scene as both a performer and a stage director. He appeared in a pair of Broadway productions in 1908 and 1911 and, during that time, adopted his familiar professional name of Donald Crisp. Within a year of his last Broadway production, Crisp travelled to Hollywood and was in the employ of motion picture impresario D.W. Griffith. He made his film debut in "The French Maid" (1908) and went on to appear in roles of varying size in dozens of silent features, most notably Griffith's epics "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), where he played General Ulysses S. Grant, and "Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl" (1919), as the abusive father of heroine Lillian Gish. He also worked as an executive for Famous Players (later known as Paramount Pictures) and became involved in the financial world when Bank of Italy chairman Amadeo Giannini courted him to help the institution finance motion pictures. Crisp went from the advisory board to a director of that institution (which later changed its name to Bank of America) and further cemented the considerable financial security he enjoyed for the majority of his life.
If that were not enough, Crisp was also simultaneously directing movies, save for a break during World War I in which he returned to England for duties with the country's intelligence service. Crisp's two most notable projects as a director came in the mid-1920s. He served as co-director with Buster Keaton on one of the comedian's finest films, "The Navigator" (1924), and oversaw the Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler "Don Q Son of Zorro" (1925), in which he also co-starred as antagonist Don Sebastian. At the dawn of the 1930s, he directed his first and only sound film, "The Runaway Bride" (1930), which also turned out to be his last effort behind the camera. Many silent movie performers were unable to make the transition to talkies, but the balding, white-haired Crisp - who sometimes passed himself off as Scottish in interviews - not only succeeded in that regard, his career in the new medium actually turned out to be much more successful. A member of the Warner Brothers stable for much of the decade, he lent support to such notable productions as "Red Dust" (1932), "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935), "Mary of Scotland" (1936), "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1936), and "The Life of Emile Zola" (1937). He also married prolific screenwriter Jane Murfin, whose career also began in the silent era and included such notable credits as "Alice Adams" (1935) and "The Women" (1939).
When his contract with Warner neared its completion in the late-1930s, Crisp announced to the press his intention of retiring to spend time on his yacht. By then, he had amassed substantial real estate holdings, in addition to the $2,500 he received weekly from Warner Brothers and his high-paying Bank of America position (which left Crisp in the unique position of approving financing on movies that he might then appear in). However, in the end, he kept right on plugging away. If Crisp had indeed exited movies at that point in his career, he would have missed out on one of his finest professional triumphs just a few years later. The actor had what turned out to be one of his signature roles as the steadfast patriarch of a Welsh family of coal miners in John Ford's acclaimed drama "How Green Was My Valley" (1942). Intractable in his ways and in staunch opposition to his sons' plans to organize a miners' union, Crisp displayed great dignity in the role and the performance earned him that year's Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Surprisingly, it was Crisp's first Academy Award nomination and in spite of many fine performances still to come from the actor, he never received another.
In what proved to be the first of a successful series of films for MGM, "Lassie Come Home" (1943) featured Crisp in a touching performance as a destitute Yorkshire coal miner unable to provide food for the titular collie his young son (Roddy McDowall) loved so deeply. Following his turn in "The Adventures of Mark Twain" (1944), Crisp again announced his departure from the entertainment world following news that he had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. Fortunately, his absence proved short-lived and he was back before the cameras in MGM's family classic "National Velvet" (1944) as the father of spirited heroine Elizabeth Taylor, and also returned for three of the Lassie sequels: "Son of Lassie" (1945), "Hills of Home" (1948), and "Challenge to Lassie" (1949). In the early 1950s, Crisp once again stepped away from the industry, but after three years of leisure, declared that he was bored and resumed acting in the 20th Century Fox CinemaScope epic "Prince Valiant" (1954). As a tyrannical rancher, Crisp proved to be a memorable opponent for James Stewart in "The Man from Laramie" (1955) and similarly made life difficult for mayoral candidate Spencer Tracy in John Ford's political drama "The Last Hurrah" (1958). At age 78, Crisp fearlessly guest starred in an episode of the live drama series "Playhouse 90" (CBS, 1956-1961). After he appeared in the Walt Disney films "Pollyanna" (1960) and "Greyfriars Bobby" (1961), and as an aged patriarch in "Spencer's Mountain" (1963), Crisp announced his retirement yet again, but finally made good on the promise. He spent much of the final decade of his life at the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital, a facility he had co-founded. Following a series of strokes, Crisp died on May 25, 1974, two months short of his 92nd birthday.
By John Charles