Donald Crisp was born George William Crisp in London, England, at the family home in Bow (historically known as Stratford) on July 27, 1882.
While on the boat coming to America, 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. It was while touring with the company in the United States and Cuba that Crisp first became interested in the pursuing a career in the theatre. By 1910 Crisp, now using the name Donald (he retained his given name 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 became friends with soon-
From 1908 to 1930 Crisp, in addition to directing dozens of films, would also appear in nearly 100 silent films, many in bit or small parts. One notable exception was his casting by Griffith as General Ulysses S. Grant in Griffith's landmark film Birth of a Nation in 1915. Another was his acclaimed role in the 1919 film Broken Blossoms as the brutal and abusive father "Battling Burrows" opposite Lillian Gish.
Crisp worked as an assistant to Griffith for several years and learned much during this time from Griffith, an early master of movie story telling who was influential in advancing a number 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. Owing to the assembly line manner in which films were made in the early years of movie making, many directors (and actors) would find themselves turning out a dozen or more films in a single year. Over the next fifteen years Crisp would direct some 70 films in all, among the most notable are The Navigator (1924) with Buster Keaton and Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925) with Douglas Fairbanks.
With the advent of sound in films, coupled with his acknowledged weariness for directing, Crisp moved entirely to acting after 1930 where he became a much sought after character actor. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s he appeared in a wide range of roles along side some of the era's biggest stars including Clark Gable in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights (1939), and Gregory Peck in Valley of Decision (1945).
A versatile supporting actor, Crisp could be equally good in either 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 an acclaimed 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 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 1941.