A general electric in Dr. Strangelove and Patton, Oscar winner (and refuser) George C. Scott turned fury into fame
October 11, 1999
Scott (in 1974) once said, “Why hang on until 85 and be incapacitated, deaf and blind and have to be taken care of? (Death) will happen to all of us.”
When he marches in front of a giant American flag to thunder at an unseen audience in the opening moments of the 1970 film Patton, George C. Scott, a lion in jodhpurs, reduces viewers to quivering boot-camp recruits. Those who were lucky -and unlucky- enough to work with the great Scott felt equally queasy. Daniel Petrie Sr. was getting a ride to work, where he was directing Scott in the 1963-64 TV drama East Side, West Side, when he told a friend to pull over; he thought he had a case of Scott-induced nausea. "I was absolutely terrified of him," says Petrie. "I kind of laughed [and told myself], 'This is psychosomatic. It's not a bug, it's nerves. I'm afraid of George."
Now the stage, screen and those who feed its dreams will no longer tremble at Scott's shattering roar. He died on Sept. 22 at 71, while working on his memoirs in his Westlake Village, Calif., home. Broadway -where he played several Shakespearean roles and starred in a 1975 production of Death of a Salesman- dimmed its lights that night for one minute in his honor but probably should have shut off its sound systems instead. The hard-drinking Scott was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, or weakening in a heart valve, three years ago, when he was starring in Inherit the Wind on Broadway, but he was typically dismissive of the ailment that made him cut short his final stage role. "He could have had it operated on," said Scott's friend and publicist Jim Mahoney. "But he let nature take its course, and it cost him his life." That doesn't surprise Petrie, who would go on to direct Scott in Showtime's 1999 TV film of Inherit the Wind. "He had to use his hands to pull himself to his feet. [But] I didn't know about the aneurysm. He was not a complainer."
Surprisingly -considering the awe with which his colleagues regard him- he wasn't a braggart either. "George was truly one of the greatest and most generous actors I have ever known," said Jack Lemmon, a costar in Inherit the Wind. "Certainly up there with Brando, James Cagney and Bogart," agrees The French Connection director William Friedkin, who worked with Scott on Showtime's 1997 12 Angry Men. James (The Sopranos) Gandolfini was so in awe of Scott on that set that he "almost couldn't breathe," Friedkin says, and fellow thespian Tony Randall called him simply "the greatest actor in American history."
Scott certainly absorbed more life experiences than many actors. George Campbell Scott (he would give his middle name to his sixth and last child, Campbell, 38, who starred in Dying Young and The Spanish Prisoner) was married five times -twice to the late actress Colleen Dewhurst- and had his nose broken as many times in brawls. "He was a tremendous mans man," recalls 12 Angry Men costar Tony Danza, who tried to get Scott to stop the boozing he began in the late 1940s, when he was a Marine burying bodies at Arlington National Cemetery. But, Danza concedes, "you ended up just drinking with him." Scott called himself "a functioning alcoholic," and he was a champion on both counts. Larry Gelbart, who wrote Scott's 1978 film Movie Movie, says that when there were rewrites, "George never looked at the paper. He said, 'Just read it to me.' And it stuck. And this is a guy who probably had been keeping up his regimen of a bottle of Smirnoff and I don't know how many Budweisers all day long. It's still a miracle to me." Recalls Paul Sorvino, Scott's costar in The Day of the Dolphin (1973): "He used to have a bodyguard who was there to protect other people from him. [But after an argument] I challenged him to a fight, and he thought better of it, and for three days he was like a little boy." Adds Angry costar Edward James Olmos: "He lived fast." But he started slowly. Born in Wise, Va., Scott lost his mother at age 8 and grew up in Detroit, where his father, George, worked for Buick, eventually becoming an executive. Young Scott spent four years in the Marines starting in 1945, too late for combat, then studied journalism at the University of Missouri. Acting in a college production of the play The Winslow Boy, he told Scripps Howard News Service in 1997, "clicked, just like tumblers in a safe." He didn't break the bank, though, until he starred in Richard III in a famed 1957 New York City production. The following year, while acting Off-Broadway in Children of Darkness, he fell in love with his 34-year-old costar, Dewhurst. Scott, who had already been married twice, to Carolyn Hughes and Patricia Reed (now the head of New York City's film office), and had fathered four children (one out of wedlock plus daughter Victoria with Hughes, and daughter Devon and son Matthew with Reed), wed Dewhurst in 1960. "They loved to call each other cute, lovey names, which seems so incongruous from these bigger-than-life people," recalls theater producer Theodore Mann. But their relationship was stormy, and in 1965, after the births of Alexander, now 39, and Campbell, the couple divorced, although they continued to live together. Scott had an affair with Ava Gardner while filming 1966's The Bible but remarried Dewhurst in 1967, only to split with her for good in 1972 (Dewhurst died in 1991 at age 67). "They were both big personalities," says Mann, "and both demanded a lot of space, and it became a clash. It was beautiful and tempestuous, but they each decided separately they couldn't take it."
Professionally, Scott's stage prowess led to the big-screen part of a wily prosecutor in 1959's Anatomy of a Murder, which earned him his first Oscar nomination. At the premiere, Dewhurst later recounted, "As flashbulbs exploded throughout that night, I watched George go from being an actor to being a star." But when he didn't win, "it did a bad thing to him," according to a 1980 Washington Post interview with his fourth wife, Trish Van Devere, an actress and frequent costar to whom he was married from 1972 until his death. "He decided he would never let that happen again."
So when Scott was nominated again in '61, for his role as Paul Newman's manager in The Hustler, he wired the Academy, "No thanks." Seemingly warming up for Patton, he played the trigger-happy Gen. Buck Turgidson in 1964's Dr. Strangelove, his favorite movie. "I was ashamed to take the money; it was too much fun," he told Scripps Howard. His work in Patton was a cinch for an Oscar nomination, even though Scott was the fifth choice -after Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum and Rod Steiger- for the role he played so indelibly. Scott again told the Academy he wouldn't march in what he called a "meat parade," but he won Best Actor anyway as he spent the evening watching hockey at his Upstate New York farm. But if the Oscar didn't grace Scott's mantelpiece, it certainly fattened his wallet. "When I won the Oscar, it doubled my fees at the very least," he told The Washington Post, adding that the money was "wonderful. I think all actors are astonishingly underpaid. If I could make $10 million a minute, I would still be underpaid."
As irascible as he was at times, he was also a charmer, as when he spoke of Van Devere, now 54, whom he met while shooting 1971's The Last Run, in which Dewhurst also appeared. "[Van Devere] is, to me, irreplaceable," he told The New York Times in 1985. "I certainly could not conceive of being married to anyone but Trish." And though Scott had a temper -he punched a mirror when he found out East Side, West Side was canceled- he would also play piano and tell jokes at parties. Sometimes he would regale fellow actors with stories about the Civil War, which he studied (along with Patton arcana) as a hobby. "He could be funny and serious in a flash of a second," recalls Paul Libin, who produced eight of Scott's plays. "He was a teddy bear."
Someone who thought he was less than cuddly was Julie Wright, a $1,500-a-week assistant who filed a 1996 sexual harassment suit charging that Scott asked her, "Will you have my baby?" Scott was allowed to delay answering questions about the case for health reasons, and the suit was settled out of court.
Scott never whined about that embarrassing case or anything else. His idea of a sentimental moment came when he was on the set of 12 Angry Men, where a sound mixer was playing a Frank Sinatra album between takes. "George came over and said, 'God, what a great voice," recalls director Friedkin. "Then he said, 'You know, [Sinatra] tried to have me killed.' I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'You know, Ava [Sinatra's ex-wife]. He had me followed all over at one time when I was with Ava. I was going out the back door and his guys were going in the front door.' I said, 'George, was it worth it?' And he looked at me, and he had the biggest smile I've ever seen on his face, and he said, 'Absolutely.'"