He led some life and had some career — as a director, a star, and most notably as one of the screen’s most recognizable character actors.
If the photo of today’s subject, Donald Crisp, reminds you of your stern but avuncular local banker, don’t be surprised. Crisp may have started his movie career way back before in 1910 — his first movie was a 1908 short, The French Maid — but he finished it as a kind of Hollywood eminence gris with deep connections in the banking world, which in turn made him into something of a wealthy real estate mogul.
This is all the more remarkable since Crisp was English, born in modest circumstances near London in 1882. He started his career as a teenager, ended it more than a half century later in 1963 as “Grandpa Spencer” in the family drama, Spencer’s Mountain, costarring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara. (The picture became the basis for the 1971 tv series, The Waltons.)
In all, he appeared in more than 170 vehicles of one kind or another, both silent and sound. Although retired for his last 10 years … his span was remarkable, wrote British critic David Thomson. (Crisp died in 1974, two months away from his 92d birthday.)
In the Thirties and Forties, Crisp appeared as an actor in a broad range of memorable pictures including these best-picture Oscar winners: 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty, 1937’s The Life of Emil Zola and, of course, 1941’s How Green Was My Valley. We say “of course” since the John Ford opus won Crisp a supporting actor Oscar, and reinforced his career in that middling territory encompassing leading actor and supporting player. (Note his billing below.)
Aftr attending Oxford, Crisp served in the Boer War at the dawn of the 20th century in South Africa where he ran across an aspiring politician by the name of Winston Churchill. Crisp also signed up for British army intelligence during World War I, and followed that with service in World War II, this time in the U.S. Army.
Fact is that Crisp shifted to Hollywood by around 1910, joining as an actor D.W. Griffith’s operations at the Biograph. He was cast initially as something of a rough-house character, not the proud, wise and principled figures he was later to play.
It was working with Griffith that Crisp turned to directing in his own right, helming more than 70 pictures through the late teens and throughout the silent-era 1920’s. From the introduction of sound, Crisp, almost 50 by this point, shifted to strictly acting.
Crisp could be a warm presence (he graced more than one ‘Lassie’ picture) or a flinty authoritarian as in, more or less, Mutiny on the Bounty. A remarkable career indeed.