Obituary: George C. Scott

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The Independent Culture
WHEN TREVOR Howard died the obituaries were certain that he was a great actor; I imagine the same is now being said of George C. Scott.

Both had exuberant personalities to be subdued in the cause of their craft, to which they were dedicated despite a reputation for roistering - which in Scott's case was coupled with a refusal to suffer fools gladly; both had to settle for an indifferent box-office following, but with a massive regard from reviewers and their peers, in a category uneasily slotted between star, leading man and character actor. It isn't a new category: it once suited Walter Huston, the finest actor of his generation, because despite his looks and bearing he was over-age by Hollywood standards.

Scott came along when looks and age mattered less, but when he played Mr Rochester to Susannah York's Jane Eyre (in 1971) he lacked both the glowering handsomeness and sexual tension - that wasn't in his armoury - which Orson Welles brought to the role; but the magnetism which Jane described was vividly present.

Scott brought an excitement with him when he first appeared in films in the late Fifties and early Sixties - as the suave, arrogant attorney in Anatomy of a Murder (1959), as the razor-sharp speculator in The Hustler (1962), as the placid yet irascible Scotland Yard man in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), above all as the obtuse, self-satisfied Pentagon general, Buck Turgidson, in Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove (1964).

There was an intensity, a sense of energy being held in (Jose Ferrer, directing him on stage, noted "a concentrated fury, a sense of inner rage"): he could pause, dull-eyed till ready, when the rasp of a voice could give vent to ironic whisper or demonic shout. His reading of a line was always individual, inevitable and often humorous.

This last quality was something found in those Scott credited with teaching him his job - watching Tracy, Cagney, Robinson, Muni (even, at one time) and Bette Davis ("my bloody idol"); if other players of Scott's generation had remarked upon it they do not seem to find it within themselves (or only spuriously, as when Kirk Douglas flashes his dimple).

He once commented that his acting was geared not only to humanity and to the character he was playing but also to "the guy out there in row ten, watching yourself and judging yourself". He had intended becoming a journalist till he took the lead in The Winslow Boy at university. He attended the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Columbia after four years in the US Marine Corps, 1945-49. (Born in Wise, a coal town, in Virginia, he was raised in Detroit.)

After five years odd-jobbing and in repertory, in Toledo, Washington DC and Ontario, he played Richard III in New York, in Joseph Papp's Shakespeare Festival season, and the following year, 1958, he made his movie debut, in The Hanging Tree, as a psychopathic hellfire preacher.

Stardom came in the Sixties, culminating in 1970 with an Oscar for Patton, in which he played the eponymous wartime general (the film was issued in Britain as Patton - Lust for Glory). It was not long after he had publicly castigated the Academy on that particular rat-race, and the Oscar remains in the Academy's vaults; when Scott's then wife, the actress Colleen Dewhurst (who shared two of his five marriages), accepted another award for Patton from the New York Film Critics, she remarked that it was the only award worth winning.

Few of his subsequent films were worthy of his talent. Exceptions would be Paddy Chayevsky's The Hospital (1972) and Paul Schrader's Hardcore (1979), both demanding roles, both requiring a softer side of Scott's abilities, respectively as an overworked surgeon and a proud, religious man trying to discover why his daughter has taken to making porno movies; and he gave a witty rendering of the two roles - boxing promoter and Broadway director - in Movie Movie (1978).

He returned to the stage - Death of a Salesman, Present Laughter - and worked much in television. Two of such telemovies were released to the British cinema - Oliver Twist (1982, with Scott as Fagin) and A Christmas Carol (1984). They passed here almost unnoticed, but John Leonard, the tough critic of New York Magazine, recorded: "As Scrooge, Scott is wonderful. His is not only a Scrooge for all time . . . it renders obsolete all the other Scrooges the movies and television have evoked."

Had Scott kept a scrapbook, much of it would have read like that.

George Campbell Scott, actor: born Wise, Virginia 18 October 1927; five times married (three sons, two daughters); died Westlake, California 23 September 1999.

David Shipman died 22 April 1996