Roger Ebert Home

George C. Scott: In Memoriam

George C. Scott is dead at 71. He was a powerful screen and stage presence whose enormous range was illustrated by his two famous military roles: Gen. Buck Turgidson in "Dr. Strangelove" and Gen. George C. Patton in "Patton."

Scott won an Academy Award as best actor for "Patton," but refused it, saying the Oscars were a "meat market--barbaric and innately corrupt." He not only stayed home on the night he was nominated, but didn't even watch the show on television: He had a hockey game on.

Scott had been in uncertain health in recent years, and was found dead late Wednesday at his home in Westlake Village, near Los Angeles. No cause of death was given. He continued working almost to the end, winning an Emmy (also rejected) for his made-for-TV work in "12 Angry Men" last year, and appearing in May in a TV remake of "Inherit the Wind."

From the moment Otto Preminger cast him as a slick out of town lawyer in "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959), opposite Jimmy Stewart, Scott reigned as one of the most charismatic and engaging of American movie actors. He won an Oscar nomination for that role, and also for his unforgettable work as the hateful sports promoter Bert in Robert Rossen's "The Hustler" (1962), a performance Pauline Kael called Satanic, and for his driven doctor in "The Hospital" (1971).

Two years after "Anatomy," Scott played Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove," sounding some of the funniest notes in that eerie comedy. As global annihilation is discussed in the "war room," he proudly boasts to the U.S. President about the pilot of a runaway bomber headed for Russia: "He can barrel in that baby so low!" He swoops his arms like wings, joyfully, until he remembers he is celebrating nuclear doom.

In that role, Scott took pleasure in pushing Turgidson to the limit, as a gum-chewing, womanizing hambone who approaches war as a boy's game. His other famous general, in Franklin Schaffner's "Patton" (1970), was flamboyant yet and secretive--a man filled with a vision of his own destiny, yet not without a certain wry humor. The film's opening shot, as Scott in dress uniform appears before an American flag and delivers his philosophy of war, is one of the most effective curtain-raisers in movie history.

When Scott was nominated for that role, he asked the Academy to withdraw his name. It did not, and he won, but he did no showboating. The other famous Oscar refusenik, Marlon Brando, followed Scott's lead two years later and refused to attend the ceremony, but sending an "Indian princess" named Sasheen Littlefeather to accept in his place. Scott did no showboating; he just stayed away and went on with his work. He didn't think actors should compete with each other for awards.

The 1960s and 1970s were Scott's great decades as a movie actor, and "The Hustler," "Dr. Strangelove" and "Patton" were joined by other great performances. In Richard Lester's "Petulia" (1968), he was a divorced doctor enraptured by an eccentric (Julie Christie). In Arthur Hiller's "The Hospital" (1971), he was a doctor again, mired in an inhuman bureaucracy. He was enjoyable in Stanley Kramer's "Oklahoma Crude" (1973), as a drifter hired by Faye Dunaway to protect her oil fields against big business. In 1977, he played a character created (and inspired) by Ernest Hemingway, in Shaffner's "Islands in the Stream."

Scott's gift for comedy was displayed in Stanley Donen's "Movie Movie" (1978), two hour-long stories put together into a "double feature." He played a grizzled fight promoter and a Broadway impresario, and was great fun in both roles. A year later, in 1979, he gave his last great film performance, in Paul Schrader's "Hardcore," playing a fundamentalist father from Grand Rapids who follows his runaway daughter into the sexual and drug underworld of the west coast.

Scott worked steadily in films in the 80s and 90s but made no important ones. His best work during those years was on the stage, which he said he preferred anyway: "I have to work in the theater to stay sane." He won four Tony awards for work on Broadway, in "Comes a Day" (1958), "The Andersonville Trial" (1959), "Uncle Vanya" (1974) and "Death of a Salesman," which he also directed, in 1975.

Scott's early acting years were spent on the road, in stock companies. A heavy drinker, he went through two marriages and five broken noses during that period, and later was married three more times, twice to Colleen Dewhurst, finally in 1972 to Trish Van Devere.

His big break came at the age of 30, when he was selected by Joseph Papp for his New York Shakespeare Festival. I would have loved to have seen his 1957 performance in the title role of "Richard III;" the role must have been a good fit for his fire, his hard-edged humor, his decisive physical details, and his stagecraft.

Scott was born in the small mining town, Wise, Va., on Oct. 18, 1926. He enlisted in the Marines in 1945, and spent four years assigned to Arlington National Cemetery on a ceremonial burial detail. He traced his drinking on that period, and told the Associated Press: "You can't look at that many widows in veils and hear that many 'Taps' without taking to drink." After a short stint as a journalism student at the University of Missouri ("I realized acting paid a lot better"), he went on the stage. He had six children, including the actor Campbell Scott.

Arthur Hiller once said that Scott would have preferred not to be a movie star--he would have been happier as a character actor. But character actors often have to disappear into roles, and Scott was always visible. He was not a recessive or subtle actor, but one who attacked his roles with zeal and a distinctive personal style. Asked once by Gene Siskel what a critic should look for in a performance, he provided three rules. First, the actor must be correctly cast, or all is lost. Second, what choices does the actor make in the role's key emotional moments? Third, is there a joy in performance? Without the third, he added, all else is irrelevant: You have to sense that the actor, the material and the role have come together in happy agreement. Watch George C. Scott in "Dr. Strangelove" or "Patton," and what you sense is beyond craft or even art. It is joy.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews


comments powered by Disqus