He’ll be remembered for becoming Gen. George S. Patton Jr., which he acknowledged as ”a once in a lifetime part.” But in an acting career that spanned nearly a half century, George C. Scott — who died of a ruptured aneurysm Sept. 22, at 71 — gave many remarkable performances, charged by his gruff bark, his steely physical presence, and the irresistible force with which he commanded a scene. All this from a man who once said he’d turned to acting because he was too shy to be a journalist.
Born Oct. 18, 1927, in Wise, Va., Scott went from high school to the Marines, only later enrolling at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. While there, he auditioned for a campus production. ”The minute I got on stage,” he’d later say, ”I knew that this was what I had to do.”
After years of regional theater, Scott caught his break, winning the title role in Joseph Papp’s New York production of Richard III. Rave reviews led to other stage work and to his film debut in 1957’s The Hanging Tree. Movie stardom came two years later with his second film, Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, which brought him an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor. It was the first of four career nominations. He won once — a Best Actor award for Patton.
He famously refused to accept the statuette, dismissing the Oscars as ”offensive, barbarous, and innately corrupt.” Despite the ensuing outrage in Hollywood, Scott was nominated the following year, for The Hospital. ”I don’t think he ever looked down on the awards as much as was written,” says that movie’s director, Arthur Hiller. ”He just didn’t want to be part of any competition. He wanted to be the best character actor, but nobody should know who he was.”
After The Hospital, the quality of Scott’s roles became inconsistent, with some good (Movie Movie, Hardcore) and some awful (Rage, The Savage Is Loose, both of which he directed). Increasingly, he found better parts back on Broadway, where he received a 1996 Tony nomination for Inherit the Wind, and in television, where he won an Emmy for the 1997 remake of 12 Angry Men.
Married five times (twice to actress Colleen Dewhurst) and father of six children, including actor Campbell Scott, the boozing and brawling Scott was reputedly a hard guy to live with, but he was perhaps hardest on himself. ”It’s never been difficult to subjugate myself to a part because I don’t like myself too well,” he once said. ”Acting was, in every sense, my means of survival.”
It also served as his ticket to movie immortality. The high points:
ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959) As an arrogant big-city prosecutor, Scott slugs it out in the courtroom with Jimmy Stewart’s folksy small-town lawyer. A-
THE HUSTLER (1961) Scott, who won his second Oscar nomination, is slickly cutthroat as the gambler bankrolling his way into the soul of Paul Newman’s cocky pool shooter. A
DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) Among the mad warmongers in Stanley Kubrick’s savage comedy, the bull-goose loony is Scott’s Gen. Buck Turgidson, getting more gleefully gung ho the faster his country hurtles toward nuclear apocalypse. A
PATTON (1970) The actor’s pinnacle, not just for the fire and fury he invests in the larger-than-life modern warrior, but also for the insight he brings to the deeply flawed man behind the legend. A
THE HOSPITAL (1971) In this pitch-black satire of modern medicine, Scott is the beleaguered head doctor, emotionally careening from alcoholic numbness to volcanic rage to suicidal despair — sometimes in a single scene. B+