Theatre Great George C. Scott Dead at 71 | Playbill

Obituaries Theatre Great George C. Scott Dead at 71
George C. Scott, the rare modern movie star who also spent a life upon the stage, died Sept. 23 in California. He was 71, and a cause of death was not immediately given.
Nicol Williamson with George C. Scott in Uncle Vanya.
Nicol Williamson with George C. Scott in Uncle Vanya.

George C. Scott, the rare modern movie star who also spent a life upon the stage, died Sept. 23 in California. He was 71, and a cause of death was not immediately given.

Mr. Scott made his New York stage debut in 1957 in a production of Richard III and was never long missing from the stage after that. Among his more notable stage performances were in revivals of Present Laughter, Death of a Salesman and, in his last New York stage appearance, Inherit the Wind, for National Actors Theatre.

John Tillinger, who directed Wind, called Mr. Scott "a great American actor... He was one of us. A man of the theatre."

Mr. Scott, however, will probably always be best remembered for playing the title role in the 1970 film "Patton," and for refusing the Academy Award he won for that performance. Mr. Scott considered the Oscars -- and all awards -- a meaningless "meat parade" and refused to support such contests. He was the first performer to so deny the award; he told the academy he would be at home, watching hockey on the night of the awards broadcast. He won an Emmy that same year for a television version of Arthur Miller's The Price. He declined to accept that prize as well.

Though born in Virginia, Scott was considered a consummate New York actor, devoted almost exclusively to serious drama, and best in sly, rascally, plain-spoken characters. His presence was intense and volatile - perhaps owing, in part, to his four years of service in the Marines -- and he tended to dominate any production or film in which he appeared. Producer Paul Libin, who worked with Scott on seven projects at Circle in the Square, remembered Scott as "a man of few words and great passion. "He was a great actor, a great director, loved the theatre," said Libin. "What was extraordinary about him is he had this discipline and preperation. He never came to a rehearsal or performance without locking in on that responsibility. It was a joy to see him focus on his job."

Mr. Scott received another Oscar nomination for 1971's "The Hospital." His other films include Otto Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder," Robert Rossen's "The Hustler," and Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove." In the latter, he gave one of his best comic performances, playing a military hawk trying to soft-peddle a pending nuclear disaster.

In later films, he tended to fill gruff supporting roles, such as those in "Taps" and "Firestarter." Mr. Scott's television career began with the early series, "East Side West Side." In the 80's, he starred in television movies of "A Christmas Carol" and "Oliver Twist." A 1987 television series, "Mr. President," failed to take off.

To many, though, Mr. Scott will always be remembered for his commanding stage work. Tony Randall, founder and artistic director of National Actors Theatre, said in a statement, "He was the greatest actor in American history. It was a privilege to work with him on Inherit The Wind. His loss is a great tragedy.

Scott made his Broadway debut during the 1958-59 season, in Comes a Day opposite Judith Anderson. He earned a Tony Award nomination for the performance and created a sensation in the play when his sadistic character choked a bird on stage (the bird was not real, according to Playbill historian Louis Botto, but the audience's horror was genuine).

Other roles included Anthony and Cleopatra, The Andersonville Trial (Tony nomination), Uncle Vanya (Tony nomination), Plaza Suite, The Little Foxes, Three Sisters, On Borrowed Time and Desire Under the Elms. He won additional Tony nominations for Death of a Salesman and Inherit the Wind, but never won the trophy. He won the Clarence Derwent Award for Circle-in-the-Square's Children of Darkness in 1958.

Inherit the Wind, his last appearance on Broadway was fraught with mishap. Cast opposite Charles Durning in Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre's production, Mr. Scott won rave reviews as the Clarence Darrow-based lawyer who defends teaching creationism. But the actor was frequently absent from the production due to an undisclosed illness, a situation that resulted in Randall often taking his place on stage on short notice and the hit production's run being cut short.

"It was a real privilege to direct him in that play," Tillinger told Playbill On-Line. "His theatrical sense was unerring. He always landed on the right word. He knew how to build a speech and scene, and he never stopped working on the part... But the run [of Wind] was troubled, as you know; he missed a number of performances. But he had this double aneurysm in his heart and a bad flu he couldn't shake off because he'd just made a movie set in a mine in Virginia. After he'd told me about the aneurysm there were nights when I was telling him, `George, don't go on stage. Get into a cab, go home!' He collapsed on stage once and another time left the stage towards the end, but otherwise he was a tough old bird, and he went on.

"Yes, he had a wildly destructive side. Acting was what saved him. It was the one thing he knew what to do with at all times, and he lived for that."

Ultimately, Inherit The Wind closed earlier than expected, not so much owing to Mr. Scott's ill health as to a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by a female assistant. Tillinger notes that it was this unresolved legal difficulty, rather than the actor's various ailments, that kept him from returning to New York.

Mr. Scott's involvement with Inherit The Wind didn't end there, however. Three years later, he switched roles and played fundamentalist Matthew Brady opposite Jack Lemmon's Henry Drummond in a TV movie version of Inherit the Wind, seen in May 1999 on Showtime. As of Sept. 23, the movie was not scheduled for another screening before the end of the year, according to a Showtime source.

Born in Wise, Virginia, Mr. Scott attended the University of Missouri, leaning toward a journalism career. He tried out for a school play as a lark and he got the part. He performed in five more college plays and later performed at the Stephens Playhouse in Columbia, MO, and in summer stock in Ontario and in Bloomfield Hills, MI. He performed roles with such regional troupes as Will-O-Way Theatre in suburban Detroit, where he was raised before he became a New York and Hollywood actor.

Mr. Scott was married five times, twice to actress Colleen Dewhurst (1960-65, 1967-72). His other wives were Carolyn Hughes, Patricia Reed and Trish Van Devere. His son (by Dewhurst), Campbell Scott, is also an actor.

Director Tillinger said that if he'd had his chance to direct Mr. Scott again, he would have chosen August Strindberg's The Dance of Death as the vehicle. "George and I talked about it," the director told PBOL. "It's about a very tortured marriage, and if anybody could do Strindberg, he could."

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