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George C. Scott Dies at 71; Refused Oscar for 'Patton' : Actor: Colleagues praise the brilliant but reluctant star. He was known for intense, well-crafted performances.

September 24, 1999|ERIC HARRISON and SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

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

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