A collection of George C. Scott's colleagues and a crowd of his friends and admirers gathered in the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Oct. 28 to share remembrances of the actor and director, who died Sept. 23 at the age of 71. The memorial was presided over by two of Scott's sons, Campbell, who offered opening remarks, and Alex, who spoke at the end and introduced a video retrospective of Scott's film work (including clips from "Patton," "Anatomy of a Murder," "Dr. Strangelove," "The Hustler" and "The Hospital").
Present were Ted Mann and Paul Libin, who together ran the now-defunct Circle in the Square theatre, as close to an artistic home as George C. Scott ever had. Mann recalled his friend's commitment to the theatre, remembering a time when Scott decided the character he was playing in a Circle production should have a beard. Scott was at the peak of his fame at the time and had been contracted to appear in a car commercial for $1 million. When the car executives came to see the show, they told Scott, "Well, of course you're going to shave off the beard for the commercial." Scott shot them a steely gaze. "I'm doing a play and I won't change my character," he said. No commercial, no money.
Other times, Scott was able to intimidate authority figures into doing what he wanted. Actress Elizabeth Wilson recalled an occasion, just after "Patton" came out, when she, Nicol Williamson and George C. Scott were acting in Uncle Vanya at Circle in the Square. The three had had a few drinks at a local bar and were returning to the theatre, when they spotting a police car. "Well, Nicol, for whatever reason, starting yelling this string of obscenities at the cops and of course they came over. They had their handcuffs out, when suddenly George stepped between Nicol and them and said, `Do you know who I am?'" The officers did; one policeman even gave Scott half a salute. After an explanation, the cops retreated, one of them muttering, "Wow! George C. Scott!"
The group of speakers on stage at the O'Neill often looked like a reunion of Scott's revival of Noel Coward's Present Laughter. Kate Burton, Betty Henritze and Nathan Lane, members of that play's cast, and Michael Richie, the production's stage manager, all took turns at the podium.
For Burton, Present Laughter was her first professional job and she was thrilled and a bit frightened to be working with the legendary Scott. The first day of rehearsal, the cast read the script. Scott said, "OK, that took two hours. And with all the shtick I'm going to put in it, the show will probably run two-and-a-half." Burton was shocked. "Shtick!? I had just graduated from the Yale School of Drama." After that, rehearsal uniformly lasted a brief two-and-one-half hours, though Burton was never sure why. One day, they went on for three, but the day ended when Burton and some others fell into a giggling fit. "All right, go home!" growled Scott. "Obviously, none of you can rehearse for more than two-and-one-half hours!"
Burton eventually left the show early; she had been asked by Eva Le Gallienne to play Alice in the famed actress-director's production of Alice in Wonderland. Burton informed Scott. He received the information and then paused. "Eva La Gallienne?" he said. "Jesus Christ! Is she still alive?"
Nathan Lane, whose career was arguably made by his appearance in Present Laughter, also left the show before the end of its run -- to join the famous musical flop, Merlin. When Scott found out, he came pounding on Lane's stage door. "You're leaving me to do a fucking magic show!?" he bellowed.
Of course, much of Scott's gruffness was meant in fun, and the speakers visibly enjoyed retelling their various run-ins with the famously combustible, but ultimately warm and lovable actor. Years after doing Present Laughter, Scott asked Lane to take a role in Paul Osborne's On Borrowed Time. Lane didn't want to do it. "I thought it was this chestnut... So I thought I'd call George and tell him I didn't want to do it. You could never get George on the phone. He was famous for not answering his phone, so I thought I'd get the machine and could bow out gracefully. But he answered. I wanted to say, `Listen, George, why do you want to do this play? You're going to play "Gramps" and I'm going to play "Death"? C'mon.' But instead I said, `George, I've read the script and frankly I don't think I'm right for this part.' " Scott assured him he was and Lane countered by saying the role had been traditionally played by old English actors like Sir Cedric Hardwicke. "Well, when I go," said Scott, "I don't want Sir Cedric-fucking-Hardwicke to take me. I want you!" Lane did the play.
Later, at the closing night party of On Borrowed Time, Scott paused before getting into his car and grabbed Lane by the shoulder, and said, "I know you didn't want to do this play. I know you did it for me and I'll always love you for it."
Henritze, also in Present Laughter, reminded the audience that Scott was often very critical of himself, as both an actor and a person. One night, she passed by an unshod Scott back stage. "George," she remarked. "You have beautiful feet." Scott, without missing a beat, replied. "Beautiful feet and an ugly soul."
"I don't believe he had an ugly soul," Henritze told the crowd, her eyes welling up.
Jason Robards, who was of Scott's generation (though they only worked together once), met him at Patsy and Carl's Theatre Bar (now Barrymore's). Scott was then appearing downtown in Richard III. "But he liked to hang out uptown with the big boys," said Robards. "Little did he know, he was bigger than any of us."
-- By Robert Simonson