A commanding presence lost

Actor: For 40 years, George C. Scott played characters with an irascibility not dissimilar to his. He died Wednesday at 71.

September 24, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

George C. Scott, whose memorably irascible characters dominated every stage and screen on which they appeared, has died at 71.

Friends and staff found Mr. Scott dead Wednesday afternoon at his home in Westlake Village, Calif., 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles, said Mitch Breese, chief deputy coroner's investigator for Ventura County. An autopsy was scheduled today to determine the cause of death.

"It was unexpected," said Jim Mahoney, the actor's publicist, who said that Mr. Scott had suffered an aneurysm several years ago.

If moviegoers remember Mr. Scott for one role in his nearly 40 years of acting, it is that of Army Gen. George S. Patton. A commanding presence at 6 feet tall, Mr. Scott so completely inhabited the role of the tough, wily and wittily profane war leader that for many filmgoers it's his face that comes to mind when Patton is mentioned.

Mr. Scott won an Oscar in 1971 for his portrayal but declined the award, saying that the Academy Awards ceremony was nothing more than a "beauty contest in a slaughterhouse." Undeterred, Hollywood awarded him an Emmy the next year for his role in Arthur Miller's "The Price." Mr. Scott rejected that honor, too.

His first major film was 1959's "Anatomy of a Murder," in which he played an aggressive prosecutor. Two years later he co-starred with Paul Newman in "The Hustler," in which he played the predatory manager of Mr. Newman's cocky young pool player. In both movies, Mr. Scott was an indelible presence, stealing scenes from the most charismatic of co-stars. In 1964, he proved his comic mettle in Stanley Kubrick's war satire "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," in which he delivered a hilariously deadpan portrayal of the hawkish Gen. Buck Turgidson.

"Patton," an epic portrait of one of World War II's most charismatic soldiers, was a movie that Mr. Scott seemed to be born for. But as electrifying as Mr. Scott's performance was in "Patton," his movie career didn't sustain the momentum of the 1960s.

He won critical acclaim for his comic-tragic portrayal of a physician in Paddy Chayefsky's satire "The Hospital" (1971), and cult followers have prized his portrayal of a man who thinks he's Sherlock Holmes in the box office flop "They Might Be Giants" (1971). But his movie career declined through the 1980s (his last movie was "Malice" in 1993). Many observers chalked it up to his famed difficulty on the set, a drinking problem and his reclusive nature.

Although Mr. Scott held the medium of television in as much contempt as he did films, he did notable work there, especially in the medium's golden age, when he starred in such series as "Playhouse 90," "Kraft Television Theatre" and "Omnibus."

He won Emmys for directing "The Andersonville Trial" on PBS in 1970 and acting in "The Price" on the Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1971. He also was a nominee for acting in Hallmark's 1976 "Beauty and the Beast."

As Mr. Scott's big-screen movie appearances became rarer, his presence in television increased. His network appearances included "Oliver Twist" on CBS (1982), "A Christmas Carol" on CBS (1984, as Scrooge), "Mussolini: The Untold Story" on NBC (1985), and a short-lived sitcom for Fox, "Mr. President," that didn't survive the 1987-1988 season. He did it, Mr. Scott said, only for the money. Mr. Scott dusted off his general's uniform in 1986 for "The Last Days of Patton" on CBS.

In recent years, Mr. Scott turned increasingly to cable TV for work. Two years ago, he played a juror deliberating a Hispanic teen-ager's fate in Showtime's remake of the 1957 film, "12 Angry Men." This May, he took over the William Jennings Bryan-inspired role in Showtime's "Inherit the Wind," where he proved just as passionate and blustery as ever. Regardless of how many movies and TV shows Mr. Scott appeared in, it was the theater to which he returned again and again, often with more rewarding results. He appeared in 22 plays, three of which he directed. His last performance on stage, in 1996, was in a production of "Inherit the Wind."

In 1976, Mr. Scott appeared at Baltimore's Mechanic Theater in the lead of the pre-Broadway debut of "Sly Fox." On opening night, Mr. Scott was reported to have thought the show wasn't ready and refused to go on until the play's producer helicoptered in to persuade him.

While rehearsing "Sly Fox" in New York, Mr. Scott told The Sun that even though he suffered profound stage fright when doing a play, "I still get enjoyment out of it -- acting on a stage. I get less and less enjoyment out of films."

He returned to the Mechanic in 1988, when he starred in the one-man show "Clarence Darrow," which he also directed. Sun theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck said the production wasn't "so much a play as an event," adding that "from the moment he walks on stage, Mr. Scott projects a larger-than-life presence."

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