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Scott, George C(ampbell)

SCOTT, George C(ampbell)

(b. 18 October 1927 in Wise, Virginia; d. 22 September 1999 in Westlake Village, California), film, television, and stage actor whose career reached its apex in the decade between the films The Hustler (1961) and Patton (1970).

Born in the mining country of western Virginia, Scott was one of two children of George C. and Helena Scott. The coming of the Great Depression forced a move to Detroit, where his father worked in the Buick automobile plant. Scott's mother, an amateur poet, died when he was eight, and his sister helped raised him. In 1945 Scott graduated from Detroit's Redford High School and joined the U.S. Marines. However, the war was nearing its conclusion, so the marines put him to work burying the dead at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

Discharged in 1949, Scott enrolled on the GI Bill in the journalism program at the University of Missouri, Columbia. There Scott first discovered his abilities as an actor, appearing in a student production of Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy. Later he would say of acting that, for him, it "clicked, just like tumblers in a safe." Soon he realized that he cared more for the stage than for journalism, so he left school in 1950. During the next six years, Scott appeared in more than 125 stock theater productions in Toledo, Ohio; Ontario, Canada; and Washington, D.C. In 1956 Scott moved to New York City, where he paid his bills by working as an operator of a check-sorting machine in a bank while he searched for acting jobs.

Although his life in those early days on the road might have been better suited to a single man, Scott was actually married twice. In August 1951 he married actress Carolyn Hughes, a union that lasted until March 1955. At some point during the late 1950s (biographies of Scott are vague on the matter of his first two marriages), he was married to another actress, Patricia Reed, with whom he had three children. Scott also had a child who was born out of wedlock while Scott was in college.

Scott's breakthrough came in 1957 with a title role in Joseph Papp's Shakespeare Festival stage production of Richard III. Parts in As You Like It and Children of Darkness followed in 1958, the year of his Broadway debut in Comes a Day. Already seasoned by his performance as Shakespeare's sociopathic king, Scott again displayed his talent for playing malevolent characters with his Tydings Glenn, who tortures birds. That performance earned him his first Tony Award nomination, followed by a second for The Andersonville Trial (1959). His stage performances in the late 1950s won him an Obie and Theatre World awards, but these would be some of the only ones he was to accept: by the beginning of the 1960s, if not earlier, Scott had come to believe that awards were a farce that encouraged cutthroat competition between actors.

In 1958 Scott emerged on the national scene with several television performances, most notably "A Tale of Two Cities" on the Dupont Show of the Month for the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). The following year marked his film debut with The Hanging Tree (1959), in which he played Dr. George Grubb, an enraged alcoholic who incites his neighbors to hang a man. He followed this with an even more significant supporting role as Claude Dancer in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder (1959), in which he was pitted against Jimmy Stewart in blistering courtroom scenes that earned him his first Academy Award nomination.

A second Academy Award nomination followed for The Hustler (1961), in which Scott played a memorable supporting role as Bert Gordon, a pool shark. Although this was his most well-known performance of the early 1960s, Scott stayed active in film, on television, and on stage in the years from 1960 to 1962. During this time he performed on television as Gordon Cross in "The Burning Court" on the National Broadcasting Company's (NBC) Dow Hour of Great Mysteries (1960); as the devil in "Don Juan in Hell" on the syndicated Play of the Week (1960); as Lord Henry Wotton in CBS's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1961); and as a police lieutenant in the CBS miniseries The Power and the Glory (1961). Additionally, he appeared in episodes of Ben Casey (1961), Naked City (1962), The Virginian (1962), and The Eleventh Hour (1962). The Ben Casey role earned him an Emmy nomination. Scott's stage performances in New York City include appearances as Dolek Berson in The Wall at the Billy Rose Theatre (1960); in the title role in General Seeger at the Lyceum (1962); and as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at the Delacorte Theatre during the New York Shakespeare Festival (1962).

Another memorable film role came in 1964, when Scott played General "Buck" Turgidson in director Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Not only did his performance show that Scott had a talent for comedy, but Scott had fun with the role and later said that he enjoyed making Dr. Strange-love so much that he almost felt guilty getting paid for his work. Additionally, the film marked his first significant performance as a military figure, giving him experience that would contribute to his most important motion picture six years later.

Scott's other film appearances during the mid-1960s include his first leading role in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), a mystery directed by John Huston; The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964), written by Rattigan; Huston's The Bible (1966), in which Scott played Abraham; and Norman Panama's Not With My Wife You Don't! (1966). Scott had his first regular role on a television series in the highly acclaimed but short-lived East Side, West Side (1963–1964), and he appeared in "A Time for Killing" on NBC's Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre (1965), and one episode of The Road West (1966). Also during the period from 1963 to 1966, Scott performed on the New York stage in Desire Under the Elms (1963) and in the London debut of The Three Sisters (1965).

Both The Yellow Rolls-Royce and Not With My Wife You Don't! were comedies, and with The Flim-Flam Man (1967), Scott once again displayed his comedic talents to good advantage, this time as a con artist named Mordecai. Other film work from the late 1960s includes performances in Petulia (1968), alongside Julie Christie, and in This Savage Land (1969), which brought together several episodes of The Road West television series. Scott played John Proctor on CBS's The Crucible (1967) and appeared on Johnny Carson's Repertory Company special (1969). On the New York stage he acted in The Little Foxes at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre (1967) and played three different roles in Plaza Suite at the Plymouth Theatre in 1968.

The greatest role of Scott's career came in 1970, when he played General George S. Patton. Coming as it did at a time when antiwar sentiment was at its height, Patton might at first have seemed ill timed, but in fact the opposite proved to be the case. The film spoke not only to establishment figures—it was supposedly President Richard M. Nixon's favorite movie, and stories of repeated solitary screenings at the White House became legendary—but to the counterculture as well. This appeal to youth is not surprising, given the fact that the Patton of the film is a rebel, a visionary, and a dreamer, who even believes in reincarnation.

Even Patton's militarism, set against the backdrop of a war that took place twenty-five years earlier, comported with the views of those who opposed the war in Southeast Asia. On a superficial level, of course, his strident speeches present a call to arms for those who sought victory in Vietnam and the restoration of order at home. But from another perspective, Patton seems to be saying, over and over, that war is hell, and that if one is to fight in a war at all, one had best be entirely committed to the cause.

Under Scott's masterful treatment, the character was at once a soldier and a nonconformist, and he played both aspects of Patton's personality to such a height that the resulting characterization might have seemed hyperbolic in the hands of a lesser actor. Scott's Patton could be intimidating, as in the opening speech before a U.S. flag; brutal, as in the scene in which he slaps a soldier who claims to have battle fatigue; tender, as when he kisses the cheek of a dead combat soldier; and even charming, as when speaking to a group of ladies in London. Seldom has an actor so fully inhabited a character as Scott did Patton, and even the similarity of their names—George C. and George S.—bespoke an affinity that seemed to destine Scott for the role.

Given the brilliance of his performance, Scott was a virtual shoo-in for the best actor Academy Award in 1970, which he won. Scott, however, refused the award, the first actor ever to do so. Scott chose instead to stay home in bed, and in so doing, he set the stage for Marlon Brando's rejection of the Oscar for The Godfather two years later. Scott later called the Academy Award ceremonies "a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons." His snub, however, did not stop Academy members from nominating him for the award again the following year, this time for his performance in Paddy Chayevsky's The Hospital (1971).

Throughout the 1960s, Scott was married to actress Colleen Dewhurst—twice. The first union, from 1960 to July 1965, brought two children, including Campbell (born 19 July 1961), who became a famous actor in his own right. Then, after being divorced for two years, Scott and Dewhurst remarried on 4 July 1967, only to divorce again for a second and final time on 2 February 1972. Not long afterward, on 14 September, Scott married another actress, Trish Van Devere, who was nearly sixteen years his junior.

Scott made more than two dozen feature films after Patton, including They Might Be Giants (1971); Rage, which he also directed (1972); The Day of the Dolphin (1973); The Hindenburg (1975); Islands in the Stream (1977); Hardcore (1979); and The Changeling (1980). As General Harlan Bache in Taps (1981), he worked with unknowns, most notably Tom Cruise and Sean Penn, who would dominate film in the next decades. Scott made another two dozen television movies and miniseries, including a performance as Benito Mussolini in the NBC miniseries Mussolini: The Untold Story (1985). He also reprised his most famous role with The Last Days of Patton on CBS in 1986. Additionally, Scott had numerous appearances on television specials and episodic series and had a regular role on the short-lived Fox series Mr. President (1987–1988). He also won an Emmy in 1997 playing Juror #3 in the television remake of 12 Angry Men.

Scott died from a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm just after completing a television version of the courtroom drama Inherit the Wind (1999). In recognition of Scott, who had continued to appear in and direct stage plays during the last three decades of his life, Broadway dimmed its lights for one minute. He is buried at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

No one who has ever seen the electrifying opener of Patton can forget Scott's performance. What is remarkable is that the entire scene consists of just one actor with minimal props: his full military regalia, complete with swagger stick and star-bedecked helmet, and behind him a gargantuan U.S. flag. Against this backdrop, Scott proceeds to address the viewer as a drill sergeant would a recruit, and the message is clear—sit up and take notice of what you are about to see. This was Scott at his most intimidating, a role he perfected off-screen as well. A heavy drinker, he had his nose broken in multiple barroom fights, and once, when an actress complained to director Mike Nichols that she was afraid of Scott, Nichols replied, "My dear, everyone is scared of George." Yet Scott could also be sensitive, both on-screen and off, and with his passing, actors of all generations were aware of a great loss. In eulogizing Scott, Tony Randall called him "the greatest actor in American history," while Jack Lemmon said of him, "George was truly one of the greatest and most generous actors I have ever known."

The sole biography of Scott is W. Allen Harbinson, George Scott: The Man, The Actor, and the Legend (1977). An article on Scott by Rex Reed appears in Elizabeth Weis, ed., The Movie Star (1981). Obituaries are in the New York Times and USA Today (both 23 Sept. 1999); the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Manchester (England) Guardian (all 24 Sept. 1999); Variety (27 Sept. 1999); and Science Fiction Chronicle (Feb./Mar. 2000).

Judson Knight

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