The daughter of Mr. and Mrs. J.R. Doran, her mother was an actress whose professional name was either Rose Allen (two sources) and/or Carrie Barnett (one source). Ann Doran was born in Amarillo, Texas, and attended high school in San Bernardino, California.
Doran began acting at the age of four. (A 1979 newspaper article said that Doran's debut came when she was 11 years old.) She appeared in hundreds of silent films under assumed names to keep her father's family from finding out about her work. Rarely in a featured role (with the exception of James Dean's dominating mother in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)), Doran appeared in more than five hundred motion pictures and one thousand episodes of television series, such as the American Civil War drama Gray Ghost.
Doran worked as a stand-in, then bit player, then incidental supporting player. By 1938, she was under contract to Columbia Pictures, where the company policy was to use the members of its stock company as often as possible. Thus, Doran appears in Columbia's serials (such as The Spider's Web and Flying G-Men), short subjects (including those of The Three Stooges, Charley Chase, Andy Clyde, Harry Langdon and Vera Vague), B features (including the Blondie, Five Little Peppers and Ellery Queen series), and major feature films. She became a favorite of Columbia director Frank Capra and appears in many of his productions. Most of these appearances were supporting roles, although she did play leads in Columbia's Charley Chase comedies of 1938-40 and in one Charles Starrett western feature, the Sam Nelson-directed Rio Grande (1938).
Columbia filmed two boy-and-his-dog stories with juvenile star Ted Donaldson in 1945-46. When the Donaldson films became a full-fledged series (featuring the dog "Rusty") in 1947, Doran was cast as Donaldson's mother in the next six films. Her steady, sensible maternal roles led to her being cast as James Dean's mother in Rebel Without a Cause.
Doran played Charlotte McHenry, the housekeeper on Shirley,:962 Agnes Haskell, Eddie Haskell's mother, in Leave It to Beaver and Mrs. Kingston, the housekeeper, on Longstreet.:621-622
Doran guest starred on many television programs, including three appearances in the role of Bonnie Landis in the CBS legal drama, The Public Defender, starring with fellow Texan Reed Hadley. She appeared in the religion anthology series Crossroads in the 1956 episode "The White Carnation", along with Elinor Donahue, James Best and J. Carrol Naish. In 1952, she appeared in an episode of The Lone Ranger entitled "Hidden Fortune".
Doran was cast in the CBS children's Western My Friend Flicka, the story of a boy and his horse on a Wyoming ranch. She also appeared in episodes of Ray Milland's CBS sitcom Meet Mr. McNutley and Kenneth Tobey's syndicated aviation adventure series, Whirlybirds. Doran guest-starred on CBS's Perry Mason in "The Case of the Prodigal Parent" (1958), "The Case of the Lurid Letter" (1962) and "The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito" (1963).
Doran was cast twice in 1959-1960 in episodes of the ABC/Warner Bros. Western series Colt .45, starring Wayde Preston. In 1960, she was cast as Martha Brown, the mother of horse rider Velvet Brown (Lori Martin) in the NBC family drama National Velvet.:746 She made one appearance on ABC's McHale's Navy as Mrs. Martha "Pumpkin" Binghampton, wife of Captain Binghampton (Joe Flynn).
Three years later, she appeared in the first episode of the ABC western series The Legend of Jesse James as Zerelda James Samuel, the mother of Jesse and Frank James. She also appeared on the program M*A*S*H as Nurse Meg Cratty, who runs an orphanage in Korea. In the Season Four episode "The Kids", Cratty and her charges bunked with the M*A*S*H unit to avoid snipers.
Doran died at age 89 on September 19, 2000, in Carmichael, California. Following her death, her remains were cremated. She bequeathed $400,000 to the Motion Picture Country House, the retirement home for the movie industry.
July 28, 2016 was designated as Ann Doran Day in Amarillo, Texas.