George C. Scott (1927-1999) was one of the finest and most versatile stage, television, and film actors of the last half of the twentieth century, best known for his Oscar-winning performance as American General George Patton.
In an acting career that spanned five decades, Scott displayed a natural ability to capture the contradictory characteristics of intense inner anger and external composure. His performances in such films as Anatomy of a Murder, The Hustler, Dr. Strangelove, Patton, and The Hospital earned him a reputation for understated yet powerful performances. Scott's range and professionalism attracted many of American cinema's most acclaimed directors, including Stanley Kubrick, Stanley Kramer, Robert Rossen, John Huston, Otto Preminger, William Friedkin, Peter Medak, Stanley Donen, and Paul Schrader. Featuring rugged facial characteristics, including a nose frequently broken in bar fights, and a gruff voice, Scott was a prodigious drinker until the early 1980s. Scott was remembered for his rejection of the Academy Award he won for Patton in 1971 and of television's Emmy Award for his performance in Arthur Miller's The Price. He considered actors competing for awards "demeaning."
Struggled to Find Career
Scott was born in Wise, Virginia, a small, coal mining community in the Appalachian Mountains, on October 18, 1927. His paternal grandfather was a miner and his father worked as a mining surveyor. His mother wrote poetry and appeared on local radio stations; she died when Scott was young. His father took a job at a General Motors plant in the Detroit area when Scott was eight, moving the family to Michigan, where they lived first in Pontiac and then in Redford.
When he was old enough to enlist, Scott quit high school and joined the Marines for four years. Shortly after he enlisted, World War II ended and Scott spent much of his time assigned to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Scott later said this job prompted him to start drinking regularly to help him cope with his daily contact with grieving family members and the corpses of soldiers.
Intent on becoming a writer, Scott used the G.I. Bill to enroll at the University of Missouri at Columbia and began studying journalism. His writing bent leaned more to creative writing than journalism, and he spent much of his time crafting short stories and submitting them to magazines. None were accepted, and Scott turned to the theater for creative expression. He tried out for the university's production of Terrence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy and earned the part of Sir Robert Morton. Scott was immediately bitten by the acting bug. "It was like tumblers falling in a lock," he later recalled. "I knew what a good safe-cracker felt like." He appeared in several more productions at the University of Missouri and a play at the all-female Stephens University, where he also taught a course in Western literature.
At Stephens, he met his first wife, Carolyn Hughes, and they had a daughter. Scott also fathered an illegitimate child with another Stephens student. He and his wife sought acting work in Ohio, Detroit, and Canada, but with little success. He divorced his wife and returned to Stephens hoping to resume teaching, but his divorce and illegitimate child caused the school to refuse to hire him. He worked one year in construction before auditioning for a semi-professional repertory theater in 1954.
Success on Stage and Screen
By 1956, Scott had married actress Pamela Reed and moved to New York City. He appeared in roles on such 1950s television programs as Hallmark Hall of Fame, Kraft Theatre, Omnibus, and Playhouse 90. In 1957, he won the title role in William Shakespeare's Richard III in Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival. His performance earned him a critical appraisal as "the meanest Richard III ever seen by human eyes," as well as an Obie Award. In 1958, he made his first Broadway appearance in Comes a Day.
In 1959, Scott was offered a supporting role as the drunk preacher Dr. George Grubb in the Gary Cooper western film The Hanging Tree. His next film role earned him a reputation as an actor's actor. Playing a hotshot big-city prosecuting attorney in Anatomy of a Murder, Scott was the nemesis of James Stewart's small-town defense attorney. Directed by Otto Preminger and featuring a musical score composed and performed by Duke Ellington, the film earned Scott his first Academy Award nomination.
Following Anatomy of a Murder, Scott returned to New York, divorced Reed, and married actress Colleen Dewhurst. In 1961, he returned to film with a critically heralded performance as promoter Bert Gordon in Robert Rossen's adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel about pool players, The Hustler. Writing about Scott's performance in the film, Michael Sragow said: "Scott brought something novel to the screen: an electric wariness. No actor was better at portraying the point where thought and instinct fuse—and he did it best in The Hustler (racking up another supporting-actor nomination). If you saw it as a teenager, his image embodied everything murky and menacing in city life. He was the nightmare image of the man in the back room. … Studying the play of the game, Scott's craggy face oozes alertness from its pores, and his trim, energetic body (Scott grew massive later on) keeps him from seeming sedentary." Once again, Scott was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. Although Scott refused the nomination, his name remained on the ballot.
Before returning to Hollywood, Scott won another Obie Award for Eugene O'Neill's Desire under the Elms. Scott made his debut as a Hollywood leading man in John Huston's 1963 film The List of Adrian Messenger. During the 1963-64 television season, Scott starred in the weekly series East Side, West Side with Cicely Tyson.
Kubrick, Abraham, and Patton
In 1964, Scott appeared as General Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick's satire of the Cold War, Dr. Strangelove, a role that allowed him to portray comically the anger that he usually repressed on screen. A parody of an insensitive military commander, Turgidson is an Air Force general who orders a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, speaking such outrageous lines as "I don't say we wouldn't get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than ten to twenty million people killed."
His next big role was quite different. Starring as Abraham opposite Ava Gardner in the 1966 film The Bible, Scott's personal and professional life collided. Becoming romantically obsessed with Gardner, Scott allowed his marriage to Dewhurst to disintegrate while he pursued Gardner and accelerated his alcohol intake. He and Dewhurst divorced. Then he was fired from How to Steal a Million when he arrived on the film's set five hours late. His next film projects were The Flim-Flam Man in 1967 and Petulia with Julie Christie in 1968. He remarried Dewhurst but divorced her again five years later, marrying actress Trish Van Devere.
The film role for which he became best known was as the cantankerous but brilliant World War II military figure General George Patton in the 1970 film Patton. The film was given the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1970 and Scott was nominated and won the Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, and National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor. Dismissing the awards as a "self-serving meat parade," Scott stayed home to watch a hockey game rather than attend the Oscar ceremonies. Scott reprised his characterization of Patton in 1986 for a television drama The Last Days of Patton. He also refused his 1971 Emmy Award for his performance in Arthur Miller's The Price.
Stating that he loved acting more than stardom, Scott continued to act in both films and television. He portrayed a doctor disgusted with the political and financial aspects of the medical profession in The Hospital. The performance earned him another Academy Award nomination. His other notable films of the 1970s include They Might Be Giants, Islands in the Stream, Movie Movie, Hardcore, and The Changeling. While he continued to make films until his death, his best work in his later career came in television films such as A Christmas Carol, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Last Days of Patton, 12 Angry Men, and Inherit the Wind. For the last, he won an Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award. Scott died on September 22, 1999, in Westlake Village, California.
Video Hound's Golden Movie Retriever, Visible Ink Press, 1994.
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"George C. Scott," The Sunday-Times of London, September 24, 1999, http://www.sunday-times.co.uk/news/pages/tim/99/09/24/timobiobi02004.html ?1996766.
"Piper Laurie Remembers George C. Scott," Salon.com, September 30, 1999, http://www.salon.com