Oscar winner George C. Scott, the gravel-voiced and granite-faced actor who was best at portraying the vulnerability beneath the gruff exterior of his characters, died Wednesday at his home in Westlake Village. He was 71.
Scott, who had been in ill health in recent years, died from a rupture of a major blood vessel in his abdomen, according to Craig Stevens, senior deputy coroner for Ventura County. The actor lived alone, and his body was found by a friend.
At his best, George Campbell Scott was considered peerless in his film and TV work, though he professed to prefer the stage. From the late 1950s through the ’70s, he expertly played intelligent characters who seemed beaten by life and often seemed on the verge of exploding. In pics such as “The Hustler,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Petulia,” “The Hospital” and “Islands in the Stream,” his surly image made his expressions of self-doubt and tenderness all the more effective.
But while Scott was a respected figure in show business, he was never a beloved one. He was often obstinate and contrary. His relationship with the industry often seemed contentious, as when he publicly refused the best actor Oscar for 1970’s “Patton” (he had rejected earlier Academy Award nominations as well). He later turned down an Emmy for Arthur Miller’s “The Price.”
Problems with alcohol dependency marred his career and, in later years, rendered his work erratic and infrequent, though he did some fine TV work in the ’80s, in such telefilms as Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” and “A Christmas Carol.”
Born in Wise, Va., on Oct. 18, 1927, Scott was raised in Detroit and showed early signs of talent in writing and on the baseball diamond. After graduating from Redford High School, he enlisted in the Marines and spent four years after WWII burying bodies at Arlington National Cemetery.
In the late 1940s, he enrolled in the U. of Missouri’s school of journalism. But in college his fancy turned to performing.
“The minute I got onstage, I knew … that this was what I wanted to do,” he told Life magazine. He dropped out of college in 1953 and spent several years touring in stock around the country. In between he worked in construction.
His problems with drinking erupted in public fights and the deterioration of his first marriage to aspiring actress Carolyn Hughes. Settling in New York and continuing his struggle in the mid-1950s, he married singer Patricia Reed; through a friend, he was introduced to New York Shakespeare Festival producer Joseph Papp. He made his debut for Papp in “Richard III,” garnering raves and an agent, Jane Deacy.
Wed Dewhurst twice
In 1957 he won the Clarence Derwent award for his role as Jacques in “As You Like It.” Further awards piled up for “Children of Darkness,” a production in which he met actress Colleen Dewhurst, who was to become his third wife. That tempestuous union led to divorce, remarriage and divorce again in 1972; their son is actor-director Campbell Scott.
Scott’s Broadway debut came in 1958’s “Comes a Day,” opposite Judith Anderson, and was followed by “The Andersonville Trial” (in which he later appeared on TV) and “The Wall.”
His film debut came in 1959 in “The Hanging Tree,” starring Gary Cooper. That year, he also played a razor-sharp prosecuting attorney in Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder,” which brought him his first Oscar nomination.
He asked that his nomination be withdrawn and was ignored. The same thing happened in 1961 when he was cited again by the Academy, this time for his role as a riveting antagonist opposite Paul Newman in “The Hustler.”
In 1961, Scott and Theodore Mann founded the Theatre of Michigan to promote regional plays. After a few flops, Scott folded the company and personally paid off its debts in 1962.
Scott continually worked on television in the 1950s and ’60s on such programs as “Playhouse 90,” “Hallmark Hall of Fame” and series such as “Ben Casey,” for which he won an Emmy nomination in 1962.
He starred in the short-lived but widely praised urban drama “East Side, West Side” in 1963 on CBS, copping another Emmy nom. Script arguments with censors made it impossible for him to continue the show, he said.
Back onstage in Gotham, he was widely praised for his Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” and for the Off Broadway “Desire Under the Elms,” but the London production of “The Three Sisters” in 1965 was met with indifference.
On film, his work included John Huston’s 1963 “List of Adrian Messenger” and “The Bible” (1966), but his best early ’60s perf was as Gen. Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”
His theatrical reputation grew with the 1967 revival of “The Little Foxes” and his pairing with Maureen Stapleton in Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite” in 1968.
He was splendid in Richard Lester’s 1968 drama “Petulia,” and his next film was the 1970 “Patton” (which won best pic that year). Several actors, including Rod Steiger and Lee Marvin, turned down the role, while John Wayne asked for it and was refused. Though he refused the Oscar, Scott accepted the New York Film Critics award.
“They Might Be Giants” (1971), with Joanne Woodward, was an overlooked gem. “The Hospital,” with a memorable script by Paddy Chayevsky, earned Scott another Oscar nomination.
He fought with Huston, who walked off 1971’s “The Last Run” (most of the film was helmed by Richard Fleischer). Many of his other films of that decade were of mixed quality, including “The New Centurions” (1972), “Day of the Dolphins” (in which he starred with new wife Trish Van Devere), “Oklahoma Crude” and “The Hindenberg” (1975).
Better were the Franklin J. Schaffner-directed 1977 Hemingway adaptation “Islands in the Stream,” Stanley Donen’s 1978 two-part spoof “Movie, Movie” and Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore.”
In 1970, Scott did his first Hollywood directing gig, the TV version of “The Andersonville Trial.” (He directed only two films, 1972’s “Rage” and “The Savage Is Loose” in 1974.)
His theater credits in the 1970s included an all-star version of “Uncle Vanya” in 1973, “Death of a Salesman” with Teresa Wright in 1975 and “Sly Fox,” a popular 1976 adaptation of “Volpone.”
He worked less frequently in films during the 1980s, appearing to some good effect in “The Formula” and “Taps” and less so in “Firestarter” and “The Exorcist III” (1990). He had a small role in 1993’s “Malice,” the 1995 “Angus” and this year’s remake of “Gloria,” his last bigscreen appearance.
He often had better luck on TV. He did well by Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in 1967, 1970’s “Jane Eyre” (originally made for theatrical release) and 1975’s “Fear on Trial.” He was a memorable Fagin in “Oliver Twist” in 1982 and an effective Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” in 1984. He also starred in “Mussolini: The Untold Story” and “The Last Days of Patton” on the small screen. But his 1987 TV series, “Mr. President,” on the fledgling Fox network, lasted less than a season.
His theater appearances were less frequent during the 1980s and ’90s. Among his credits during that period were Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter” in 1982, which he starred in and directed, and “Design for Living,” which he helmed two years later.
In 1996, he starred in the National Actors Theater’s Broadway revival of “Inherit the Wind”; Scott garnered strong reviews, though his illness caused a delay in the opening; he missed several performances and exited the show before it wrapped its limited run.
Despite his recent ill health, Scott had still been working frequently. Among his recent TV projects were the remakes of “Inherit the Wind,” which bowed in May, and “12 Angry Men,” for which he won an Emmy Award last year. Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd reported earlier this year that Scott was working on his memoirs.
Scott is survived by six children.
(Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.)