George C. Scott, the raspy-voiced actor whose explosive performances powered such films as “Patton” and energized the apocalyptic satire “Dr. Strangelove,” died Wednesday in his Westlake Village home of natural causes. He was 71.
A brilliant actor but reluctant star who refused to accept the Oscar in 1971 for his portrayal of the larger-than-life Gen. George S. Patton Jr., Scott nevertheless was showered with awards during his 42-year career for intense, unforgettable performances on film, television and the stage.
Scott was found in his Westlake Village home by a family friend Wednesday afternoon, according to the Ventura County coroner’s office. Emergency medical personnel were summoned, and they pronounced him dead at 3:15 p.m. An autopsy performed Thursday showed that he died of a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm.
In some of his most famous performances, Scott played over-the-top characters, from the heroically flawed Patton to a half-crazed anti-Communist commander in “Strangelove"--Scott’s own favorite role--to a doctor at the end of his rope in “The Hospital.” Although his own vivid, sometimes frightening personality came through in all his roles, Scott did not see himself or his profession that way.
“An actor becomes terribly special, a center of attention, and it alters everyone’s behavior,” he once observed. “The actor, according to the mythology put out by press agents, is brought to us from heaven. So an actor begins to believe he’s something special.
“It is axiomatic that special talent suffers, and the result is that everyone around the talent also suffers. It’s a silly, unreal state of mind that produces cut wrists, pills, alcohol, jumping off cliffs. A survivor looking back over the shambles of his life as an actor is astonished he made it.”
Known as a Craftsman
Those who worked with him over the years said Scott was above all else a craftsman.
“What George wanted was really to be the world’s best character actor and nobody should know who he is,” said Arthur Hiller, who in 1971 directed “The Hospital,” for which Scott received a best actor nomination.
“He was an unbelievable talent,” Hiller said. On “The Hospital,” Hiller had no rehearsals because he wanted a natural, semi-documentary feel. Scott, he said, “was ready and with it. If I ‘directed’ him six times in the whole picture, it was a lot. He was that prepared and that right about his character.”
William Friedkin, who directed Scott in the recent Showtime adaptation of “12 Angry Men,” said it was “the best professional experience I’ve ever had.”
“He was the very best actor I ever worked with by far,” Friedkin said after learning of Scott’s death. “And anyone who worked with him will tell you he was the best actor too. He had an artist’s gift. You talk about his professionalism but that came out of a kind of genius. He was able to do just as good work on stage night after night. . . . There is no one around like him.”
In his real life, Scott had his demons. His boozing and brawling were legendary for much of his life--his famous nose was broken five times. Scott’s off-screen fury and unpredictable behavior sometimes shocked his co-stars (British actor Nicol Williamson once remarked, “It’s quite staggering, the degree of his self-loathing”). When he worked with Scott on Broadway in 1973 in “Uncle Vanya,” Williamson noted: “He’s the most lauded actor in America, and the most highly paid, and he’s a tortured man, given to outbursts of rage and extraordinary behavior.”
The same year, Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin wrote of Scott: “He may be the most hypnotically watchable performer now at work. And he makes it look so easy and inevitable. No one can load so much into a baleful, unblinking stare, a grunt, a shrug, a squint, or move that body language so easily along a scale from low comedy to high tragedy.”
Those who collaborated with Scott in recent years observe that he had mellowed.
Director Daniel Petrie, who worked with Scott early in their careers and again in the recent Showtime version of “Inherit the Wind,” said: “He was really a shadow physically of his former self.”
Petrie said of Scott, who had suffered several heart attacks and other ailments over the years: “I had worked with him years ago when he was a pretty rascally creature. There was a sense of danger around the set. . . . Now in his later years and with his illnesses, which seemed to be many, the gentle soul emerged. Although he still had that power, there nonetheless was a sweetness about George.”
An Actor of Great Versatility
A lion of a man with an imposing presence, intense blue eyes and a voice that could slide in an instant from a soft sandpapery growl to a fearsome roar, Scott always moved fluidly between stage, film and television. He made strong impressions early in his career in “Playhouse 90" TV programs in the 1950s. He also helped to create “East Side, West Side,” a short-lived but acclaimed 1960s series about a social worker in the slums of New York. In recent years, he worked regularly on the small screen, appearing in such productions as “Inherit the Wind” this year and “12 Angry Men” in 1997. Jack Lemmon co-starred in both of those Showtime films.
“George C. Scott was truly one of the greatest and generous actors I have ever known,” Lemmon said in a statement. “He made every actor proud to say that they were in the same profession.”
Tony Danza, who also worked in “12 Angry Men,” said of Scott: “We have lost a treasure.” He called Scott “one of the country’s finest actors.”
Friedkin recalled his last day of working with Scott as memorable. “I must say I had a feeling that there weren’t going to be too many more performances left in George while I was working with him. But when we finished the last scene of “12 Angry Men,” about 200 people showed up from other stages to watch him do his last scene and I felt that he had nailed it, that he was going to go out on a high note.
“He was in a lot of pain during that shoot,” Friedkin added. “But he never talked about what it was. . . . He had a lot of pain both physically and mentally. To the extent he was able to manage that and turn in a performance makes it all the more like Van Gogh who was undergoing this tremendous stress and turning out 3,000 masterpieces.”
Despite the recognition and acclaim, Scott talked for years of wanting to quit acting, a profession he once loved but which he said he came to consider psychologically damaging. He kept working, however, right up until the end.
His distaste for some aspects of the business started early. He received his first Academy Award nomination in 1959 for “Anatomy of a Murder,” his second film. When he was again nominated two years later for his riveting, nuanced portrayal of an amoral manager in “The Hustler,” he asked the academy to withdraw his name. He called the awards, with all of the ferocious competition that surrounds it, “a beauty contest in a slaughterhouse.”
Refused to Accept Award
That feeling came to a head during the 1971 Oscar ceremony which Scott refused to even attend, saying that he was at home watching a hockey game. (Scott did attend the Oscars in his later years). His performance as “Patton” was the most heralded of 1970 and when Goldie Hawn announced his award there was a gasp and prolonged applause from the crowd.
Scott was married five times, twice to actress Colleen Dewhurst, whom he met when they appeared in a 1958 production of “Children of Darkness.” After their second divorce in 1972, Scott married Trish Van Devere, to whom he remained married for the rest of his life. Scott’s daughter Devon and son Campbell went into acting while another son, Alexander, became a theatrical stage manager.
He also was involved for several years in the 1960s with Ava Gardner, with whom he co-starred in “The Bible” in 1966. In her posthumously published memoir in 1991, she wrote of their stormy affair, saying that Scott had physically abused her and that he so traumatized her that she couldn’t watch him on television without becoming frightened.
Scott and Van Devere worked together on numerous screen and stage projects while they were married, but the relationship became so tempestuous that they decided to live a continent apart. In an interview in 1985, Van Devere said she moved to Los Angeles from their estate in Connecticut after they took a world cruise together and fought constantly. At one of the ports of call she refused to get back on board with him, and they split up. They eventually patched things up but kept the two-home arrangement.
Their films together included “The Last Run,” “Day of the Dolphin” and in 1974 the brave but disastrously received “The Savage Is Loose” (the back-to-nature plot involved incest) that Scott not only starred in but also wrote and financed.
The stage was Scott’s great love, and it was on stage that he had many of his greatest acting triumphs. He appeared in several Los Angeles productions, including Larry Gelbart’s “Sly Fox” at the Shubert in 1978, and “Tricks of the Trade” in 1980, both of which he appeared in with Van Devere. Gilbert Cates, now producing artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse and longtime producer of the Oscar telecasts, said in 1980 of Scott’s stage work: “People know that if he’s not the best, he’s one of the best stage actors in the world.”
In 1992 Scott starred in “Wrong Turn at Lungfish” at the Coronet Theater. Sylvie Drake, then the Times drama critic, said of Scott’s performance: “There’s not an unnecessary move, a false inflection, an overdone gesture or moment of inattention.”
Born in Virginia in an Appalachian hamlet, Scott moved with his family to Detroit when he was 2. His father, who later became a corporate executive, found work in an automobile assembly plant. Scott’s creativity came from his mother, a poet who read her work before local groups and on the radio. She died when he was 8. Inspired by her, Scott dreamed of a career as a writer and began writing fiction when he was 10.
After high school, he served four years in the Marines, burying bodies at Arlington National Cemetery. This was when he picked up the drinking habit that dogged him for most of the rest of his days. “You can’t look at that many widows in veils and hear that many Taps without taking a drink,” he later said.
After the Marines, he studied journalism at the University of Missouri, but he decided journalism wasn’t for him because he was too shy “to impose . . . on other people long enough to find out about them.”
His life changed when he was cast in a campus production of “The Winslow Boy.” “The minute I got on stage,” he once said, “I knew . . . that this was what I had to do.”
In an 1968 interview in Life magazine, Scott described acting as therapy. “I became an actor to escape my own personality,” he said. “Through acting you come full circle in your personality, and, oh, what a grand time you can have along the way being wonderful people through your characters.”
His view of the profession later changed. “Acting should carry a government warning,” he was to say. “It can damage your psychological health.”
Back in 1979 while promoting the film “Hardcore,” Scott talked about wanting to quit acting.
“I don’t want to be stomping about a stage at 75, the world’s oldest living actor,” he said at the time. “There are those who would die without a stage. I won’t be one of them.”
The family said funeral services will be private, that public memorial services will be planned later in Los Angeles and New York. They asked that memorial donations be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund Foundation in Woodland Hills.
Times staff writer Carlos Lozano and Times Community News reporters Holly J. Wolcott and Matt Surman contributed to this story from Ventura County.