By Ray Sawhill
Although he was only 71 when he died this week, George C. Scott seemed like a performer from another era entirely. He had a giant presence and a raging masculine flamboyance that’s almost unimaginable in this era of Damons and Afflecks.
Born in 1927 in Appalachia, he grew up in Detroit. After four years in the Marines, he was in college studying journalism when he discovered the stage. He quit school soon after and threw himself into acting, doing more than a hundred roles in stock, where he became familiar with the joys and perils of the bottle. With the booze came the brawls. That striking nose of his? Broken four times in fights, and a fifth in a New York mugging. Discovered in 1957 by New York impresario Joe Papp, who cast him in the title role of “Richard III,” Scott received, by the end of that year, four major theatrical awards.
For more than two decades, he conducted an astounding career, becoming a star on TV and a major force on the stage. In the movies he roared through memorable performances in “The Hustler,” in “Dr. Strangelove” (as the war-mad Gen. Buck Turgidson), and in “Patton.” He had pugnacity and grandeur; he looked a little like Merle Haggard and a little like a statue of a Roman emperor. As an actor, he scorned, he thundered, he threatened. Mostly he dominated, working the old flamboyant-hambone tradition at a time when the softer, more introverted Method style was the rage.
Scott became notorious for his attitude towards prizes, labeling the Oscars a “meat parade,” and “a beauty contest in a slaughterhouse.” When it was announced at the 1971 Academy Awards that he had been voted the Best Actor prize for “Patton,” he was at home, watching ice hockey on TV. The following year he was voted an Emmy, and he refused that as well.
Did the booze burn him out? Although he was busy during the ’80s and ’90s, nothing he did during that time had anything like the resonance of so much of his work from the ’50s through the ’70s. In 1990, he had a heart attack. In 1996 he collapsed onstage during a Broadway performance of “Inherit the Wind,” and was operated on to correct an aortic aneurysm. Among his five marriages were two to the actress Colleen Dewhurst, and one to another actress, Trish Van Devere. The acting, it seems, was also in the blood; one of his six children is the actor Campbell (“Big Night”) Scott.
- A fellow Marine recalls being in the service with Scott.
- A video of Scott praising Jimmy Cagney.
- Francis Coppola talks a bit about “Patton.”
- An interview with Scott.
©1999 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.