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Scott, George C. (1927—1999)

Scott, George C. (1927—1999)

At once a commanding presence on the screen and a subtly nuanced character actor, George C. Scott was a significant force in American theater, film, and television for almost fifty years. A workmanlike actor, who had always spread his focus among all of the available stages, Scott the man was almost as hard-boiled and sensitive as the characters he played. With little patience for fuss or pandering, he was never been a publicity seeker; nonetheless, publicity sought him out, sometimes for his quietly principled stands, but often simply because of his incredibly prolific career.

Born in Wise, Virginia, and raised in Detroit, George Campbell Scott spent World War II in the Marine Corps. When he was discharged, he enrolled in journalism school at the University of Missouri on the GI Bill. He soon grew disenchanted with the idea of a writing career; "I discovered I had no talent for it," he said, "so I looked around for something else to do." While looking, he tried out for a college play and discovered where his talents really lay.

In 1951, Scott landed his first professional acting job in the New York Shakespeare Festival, performing in Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, and As You Like It. At almost the same moment, he began to get job offers on television, an exciting new medium that had just begun to burgeon with programs of serious theatrical merit. Scott starred in productions on such respected shows as Hallmark Hall of Fame, the DuPont Show of the Month, Playhouse 90, Kraft Theater, and Omnibus. By 1959, the movie offers began to roll in. That year, Scott had major roles in The Hanging Tree and Anatomy of a Murder.

During the 1960s, Scott continued to perform with great vigor and flexibility on the Broadway stage, on television—in TV movies and in his own series (East Side, West Side, 1963-64)—and in over forty motion pictures. A few of his best known films from this period are: The Hustler, with Paul Newman (1962); Dr. Strangelove, with Peter Sellers (1964); and They Might Be Giants, with Joanne Woodward (1971). Along with many great films, Scott also made his share of hack films, such as Exorcist III, notable for little else than his august presence. His craggy face, imposing size, and trademark raspy growl might tend to typecast an actor with less skill and versatility, but Scott managed to play everything from tragedy to farce to rugged adventurer. He also succeeded in portraying a widely-diverse range of characters, from sleazy gangsters to tender grandpas, from an antisocial aging Huckleberry Finn (The Boys of Autumn, Broadway, 1986) to "Old Blood and Guts," the megalomaniacal General George Patton.

It is perhaps the character of Patton, in the 1970 film of the same name, that will remain as being most identified with George C. Scott. Scott, who once called Patton "a once-in-a-lifetime part," read thirteen biographies of the famous general to prepare for the part. His portrayal of the controversial general is still recognized as a tour de force, and immortalized Patton in a way that the general's checkered military career did not. The other enduring legacy of the film is the famous incident when Scott refused his Best Actor Oscar for the role. Though he had been nominated for Academy Awards before, Scott had made very public his distaste for the Academy's voting methods and for the whole notion of competition among actors. He had announced his intention to refuse the Oscar if it was awarded to him, and, indeed, was home in bed when the award was announced. Nonetheless, Scott's snub to the Academy was felt dramatically and is often still listed among memorable moments of the Oscars.

Scott himself felt a strong attachment to the character of Patton. Though he had, like many actors, agreed to appear in commercials, he adamantly refused to trade on the likeness of himself as Patton. In 1986, Scott bought the rights to the general's memoirs and portrayed him again in a TV movie, The Last Days of Patton.

Though he never played the establishment game in Hollywood, Scott remained an admired and highly employable star. Because he always divided his time among television, film, and the Broadway stage, he retained a control and flexibility in his career that few actors have managed. Though he disdained the destructive competition of the awards system, he was nominated for a Tony for his performance in Inherit the Wind on Broadway in 1996, and continued in his seventh decade to appear in more television shows, movies, and plays than seems humanly possible.

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Grobel, Lawrence. "George C. Scott (Interview)." Playboy. December 1980, 81.

Harbinson, W.A. George C. Scott. New York, Pinnacle Books, 1977.

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