Washington — George C. Scott lunges at a spy on stage in "Tricks of the Trade" and the audience's laughter turns into a gasp. It is opening night of this witty mystery, with the laughs thick and fast, until Scott snaps them off like an icicle with this one line:
"Give me a chance to show you what I'm like when I come off the wall," he grows in a voice so dense with menace that the audience flinches en masse with the spy. It is a moment of coiled violence, like the moment before the lion pounces, the cobra strikes, the tidal wave hits. The fear in the air is as palpable as smoke.
But the spy backs off, Scott does not erupt, and there is nervous laughter in the dark.
George C. Scott has built a career as perhaps the best actor in America on that kind of intensity. You see it on film, as he plays the granite tank of a general in "Patton," the anguished husband in "Petulia," the desolate father in "Islands in the Stream," the burned-out doctors in "Hospital."
Even in his less successful films, like "Rage," in which he plays a rancher rampaging against government nerve gas, or "The Hinderburh," in which he portrays a Nazi with a conscience, there are flashes of that lightning intensity. On stage, too -- in "Death of a Salesman," "Richard III," or "desire Under the Elms" -- he gives off this incredible electricity, a fierce white heat. But the paradox is that he has described himself as "a cold, cerebral actor."
Scott is talking about that paradox in his dressing room at the National Theater in washington just before the play's Broadway opening.
"Well, when I speak of coldness," he says, "I'm not sure I've communicated what I mean . . . . What I try to think about is subjectivity, I suppose, rather than the lack of heat or passion. I mean, I try to do anything I don't knowm I'm doing. I try to program everything. And I also try to register what effect it may or may not have on the audience, and absorb this reaction. It's a continual process of programming and reprogramming, much like feeding data into a computer. . . . Well it's known the human brain is the best computer. . . . I play chess against a computer all the time. It's fascinating."
Does the computer ever lose?
"It's about 50-50."
Is the blast of anger in "Tricks of the Trade," then, just that, an acting trick?
"Yes," Scott says, "it's totally calculated." He indicates that it is not his own anger but something articial he can turn off and on like a light switch.
But there are stories from Scott's past, when a drinking problem shadowed his life, that suggest he has had his own private battles with the raging emotion audiences respond to in his acting. One night in his first Braodway play, "Comes the Day," in a fit of boozy anger, he smashed his hand into a mirror between acts and had to wear gloves to finish the performance.
During an out-of-town tryout of another play, producer Joseph Papp remembered how Scott had exploded in rage at his own performance, smashing every lamp and piece of furniture in a hotel room.
Papp told Barbara Gelb about that incident for a cover story she did on Scott in The New York Times Magazine in 1977: "I stood stock still against the wall, thinking he'd hit me next. I was scared, but I also felt great pity. George can be gentle as a lamb, and I've always been fond of him. I feel very deeply about his pain."
That anguished George Scott is nowhere in evidence the night he relaxes in his dressing room before a performance of "Tricks of the Trade." He looms in the doorway, a tall man well over six feet, some added weight giving him a rugged solidity, so that, with the terse glance and gray beard, he has a hint of Hemingway.
But it is not to be "across the river and into the trees" with George C. Instead, he leads the way into the room with the sort of clinical politeness he uses on stage as the psychologist August Browning, who may or may not be a spy treating a patient name Diana Woods (Trish Van Devere), the love of his life who may or may not also be a spy.
I had done an interview with Mr. Scott several years ago, when he was starring in a TV production of ARthur Miller's "The Crucible." It was a little like a chat with a panther, although he was courteous and businesslike. Beneath the surface a caged anger prowled, so that the fascination of talking to him was mingled with some relief when the interview was over.
He sat in his Manhattan office that day in an intimidating cross between a throne and a director's chair, made of leather and brass. Dressed in what he called his glop-colored suit, with his brown hair in a brush cut and his horn-rimmed glasses, he could have passed for a member of the Rotary Club. Unless you saw the warning glint in his eye.
This time, he seems to have shed the anger and in its place there is a surprising shyness, unexpected in an actor. There had been a glimpse of it the previous day, when he appeared as himself, not as Patton or Richard III, on stage at the National for a WRC radio interview with alive audience. A member of the audience asked why, when he'd waited for Scott after a performance to get his autograph, Scott had ducked into a back alley and through some rubble to avoid fans.
It was partly shyness, Scott admitted, but also because he's never understood "the mysticism of autographs" and loathes professional autograph hunters who want you to sign 12 books and 16 photos. "My tendency is to say 'Kiss off!,' Scott rumbles, and the audience winces, then laughs.
Scott was clearly uncomfortable on stage that day in the role of himself. He came padding in, circling the stage restlessly as though it were the lion house at the National Zoo. Then he took off his camel's hair jacket to take on the audience bare-armed in a short-sleeve shirt, gladiator sytle.
He seemed genuinely embarrassed by the verbal bouquets that were flung his way by the audience ("You're my favorite actor in the world") and by the earnest talk show host, Joel Spivak ("Scott is a national treasure"). The pained laugh, the slicing smile with which he accepted the probes and praise of the audience, only hinted at his discomfort.
The problem is, George C. Scott lacks the lavish ego that fuels so many actors. He says he's been an actor for 32 years, which is 30 years too long, and that he's never been crazy about it. He suggests that he might have been a decent stonemason if he'd stuck at it. But what he really wants to be is on the furthest shore from acting. the reason he's uncomfortable being an actor is his guilt.
Guilt? For the Academy Award winner, the actor who's been described as the American Laurence Olivier? Well yes, he says, because acting forces you to focus totally on yourself.
"It's one of the sadnesses of acting, and it's unavoidable. Because after all, you have nothing to use but yourself. Consequently, the concentration must always be on oneself. And I don't think that's very ethical. Whereas other people can relieve themselves by devoting themselves to issues, causes, whatever , professions which are essentially selfless. But the poor actor is [shafted] and can't.
"So it's not surprising to me that sometimes actors become monstrous egotists , raving maniacs, or neurotics. When you stop to think of it, it's understandable: alcoholics, suicides, cocaine sniffers, whatever. . . . If you spend 25 hours a day thinking about yourself, it's crazy!"
The day before he had told the audience: "The best people that I ever heard of or read about or knew are people who do things for others, and work and devote their lives to others. I have not. I've devoted my life to myself. I don't think that's terribly admirable."
And yet, he has avoided that souffled ego typical of so many actors. How? He glances out at the darkened stage beyond this dressing room.
"Well . . . . One of the attributes of acting is, it's an extremely communal endeavor. One cannot act alone. There is no such thing. It requires teamwork. It requires respect for one's colleagues. That's absolutely necessary. That helps sometimes. People usually get in trouble when they forget that; they become so self-centered that they think, 'I'm a star, I'm a superstar,' all that . . . [he snorts contemptuously] which is precisely what it is," he snorts. "They forget that it's not a one-man show."
But fans who say they buy tickets just to watch him, he says with a grin, "I think it's great if someone wants to spend an inordinate amount of money watching me carry my belly across the stage. When they stop doing that, I'm out of business."
In the first few minutes of our interview backstage George Campbell Scott is a different man from the one I remember several years ago. The thret of the roar is gone. Instead, here is this quiet, almost different guy, his hair much longer and iron gray, a grizzled beard framing the famous face, which seems to have been quarried in rough weather. It is a face so strong that it defies handsomeness, with a powerful ax handle of a nose that's been broken five times, a jaw that could crush walnuts, a mouth that's thin and long and down- turned like a Greek tragic mask. The eyes, with very wide irises fo Wedgwood blue, are screened through most of the interview behind steel-rimmed glasses.
He is casually dressed in a white knit T-shirt, brown trousers, and low-cut brown boots. He does the interview in profile, his long legs stretched out before him, sitting a brown and white striped couch as though it were a cavalry horse. A bit at the beginning, then more as the interview progresses and he relaxes, he turns three-quarters to look ans talk directly at the interviewer. Every now and then there's an oblique, wary, sidewise blue look, as if from a whale leary of the harpoon. It happens when he's asked to describe himself.
Long, agonized pause. "I would say lonely -- and I would say, paradoxically, optimistic -- and private."
When he is told that that sounds more like a writer than an actor, he smiles unhappily.He's nailed. That's what he is. A writer. for the past year and a half he's been at work on a novel about the Mexican-American War. He says it's going to take him 10 years to finish it.
Is Scott's style as a novelist as powerful as his style as an actor? He laughs, but it is not the mirthless laugh of some of his roles. It is a sort of gee-whiz laugh.
"Well, we'll never know till we finish it, will we? . . . I have no idea. . . . My style is realistic, certainly not poetic." His favorite author is Steinbeck.
Scott, who is so often identified with his role of Patton, says the Central figure in his novel is not a general.
"There are two young men who are the central figures, one American, one Mexican. The Mexican boy is a scholar and a clerk. The American boy is from a wealthy New York City family who gets a commission in the Army and goes out to fight against the wishes of his parents."
Scott says he does his research wherever he's traveling, or acting, but only writes when he's at home, a 14-acre estate in Greenwich, Conn., with a moat of security around it.
"I write in the basement. Alone. I try to do four pages a day. It's more difficult than acting. Very hard, very lonely. . . ."
In fact, Scott started out in life wanting to be a writer: He taught a correspondence course in creative writing through four years in the United States Marine Corps (where a fellow grunt remembers him writing well and behaving like Patton).
He has told interviewers that it was in the service, where he also spent part of that four years burying bodies at Arlington National Cemetery, that his drinking problem began.
After the Marines, he entered the University of Missouri School of graduating because he decided he was too shy to be a reporter. In the program notes he wrote for the "Tricks of the Trade" playbill, Scott says of himself that, "deciding that he was an execrable writer, he tried out for a college play ["The Winslow Boy"] in a fit of panic and got the part." when he dropped out, he became a staff actor at the Stephens College Playhouse in Missouri.
For seven years Scott played professional stock roles, where he could find them, in the United States and Canada, supporting himself in between with construction work. It was seven or eight years before he made any money at acting alone, he says, and then it was only $30 a week.
His first big break was in 1957 when he read for Joe Papp's Shakespeare festival and landed the role of the malevolent king, "Richard III." Critics found him brilliant; Rex Reed called it "the meanest Richard III ever seen by human eyes." His caustically funny performance as Jacques in "As You Like It" followed, winning him the Clarence Derwent award in a season when Scott was stacking up award like pancakes. That same season, he won the Vernon Rice Off Broadway award, the Daniel Blum Theater World Award, and the Obie award for his portrayal of the diabolic Lord Wainright in "Children of Darkness" at the Circle in the Square Theater.
The awards kept coming in film, too. His first movie was in 1957 -- "The Hanging Tree," with Gary Cooper. But it was only his second film that won him an Academy Award nomination as the relentless prosecutor in Preminger's "Anthony of a Murder,"
His wife, Trish Van Devere, who co-stars with him frequently, suggests that Scott was angry over being nominated but not winning for "Anatomy." And she says that was the cause of his later, highly publicized rejection of the Oscar for his protrayal of Patton. (After Scott refused to claim it, the statuette was sent ot the Patton museum.) Scott himself says that it wasn't anger over the "Anatomy" rejection, it was disappointment with himself -- shame over how badly he reacted to the disappointment -- and determination never to allow himself to be placed in that position again.
When the academy nominated him again for his role as the snake-eyed gambler in "The Hustler," he withdrew his name. Along the way he gave a karate chop or two to the Academy Awards, calling them "a beauty contest in a slughterhouse." After "Patton," he was nominated again for his compelling performance in "Hospital," but by then he says he had learned his lesson, didn't utter a word, and they left him alone.
SCott, who has made 27 movies, plans to film "Tricks of the Trade" with his wife and the playhs producer-director, Gilbert Cates, and author, Sidney Michaels. the Scotts have sunk "a bundle" into the play. George C. says whe he does the film his character performance will necessarily be scaled down, "more subtle. I won't have to roar."
Oddly, a taped interview with one of the moe awesome voices of the Western world is difficult to hear at times. Scott's deep, sandblasted voice is sometimes so low that it is a volcanic rumble, which the tape barely registers. He has said in the past that he has "a bad voice box." He talks in a quick, clipped, shorthand way, as though words are precious, and punctuates his sentences with growls of laughter or barks of indignation.
At one point during the interview Trish Van Devere stops by with a question; she looks like a schoolgirl with long tan hair, a scrubbed face, blue shirt, and chinos. "What was that she called you -- 'Oz'" he is asked. "'Ange,'" he says in a husky, suddenly soft vocie; 'Ange,' for 'Angel.'"
Scott has had three other wives, all actresses: Carolyn Hughes, Patricia Reed , and Colleen Dewhurst (she and Scott were married and divorced twice). He is the father of six children. Miss Dewhurst, still a good friend, praises him for a tremendous intellect and equally tremendous capacity to do good, calling him a very moral man.
From the beginning, life was not easy for George Scott. He was born in Wise, Va., just before the depression struck.
Was he a formidable baby ?
"No, I was a sickly child. But I was big, long -- I weighed 12 1/2 pounds when I was born. It was all bone. There was no meat on me then." Finally the family found a formula he thrived on, and by the time he was 2 he'd won second prize in a local baby contest.
But the depression drove the Scott family north when Virginia mines closed, farms went bankrupt, businesses failed.
"Like everybody else we were poverty-striken," says Scott, who remembers growing up on macaroni and cheese, with tuna fish occasionally for a big treat. Scott's mother passed on when he was 8, so that he was raised by a hardworking but stern father whom he feared. His father had taken the family to Flint, Mich., to find work there; he got it in the Pontiac plant's tool crib department for 33 cents an hour, three days during the better weeks. Later, he explains, his father became very successful and was a prominent executive in Detroit.
Meanwhile, Scott had made an early debut on stage, in a school play. Not as a chipmunk or a mushroom, not George C. Scott.
"I played Disaster. That was my name. It was in one of those safety-pageant plays. And I've sort of been a disaster ever since," he says with a sideway smile. "I came on stage, I remember, in a black cloak. I was about 6 or 7, and I had one long speech about all the rotten things I'd done, car wrecks, boats sinking, earthquakes, and I was responsible for the whole thing. That was the extent of my stage career for a number of years.'
It was through acting, Scott told an interviewer for life in 1968, that he escaped the boredom with himself that plagued him: "I became an actor to escape my own personality. . . . Through acting you come full circle in your personality and, wonderful people through your characters. . . ."
Scott says of acting, "I just picked it up." He is emphatically not a Method actor, who believes in becoming the character he plays. In our earlier interview, Scott said, "You illuminate, elucidate the character you're playing. That's what acting is. . . ."
When asked if the character ever takes over, he says now, "There's a certain involvement [with the character] and a certain enrichment, familiarity, and experience with the person. Sometimes it comes, sometimes it doesn't. Some take longer than others."
Does he have any tricks of the trade to help with characterization -- a walk, a voice, a haircut?
"Yeah. In 'Rage' I had false eyebrows and a cereal bowl haircut. The eyebrows helped me. Obviously it depends on the character. Shylock [ in "The Merchant Of Venice"] moved differently from Richard III. At the beginning of rehearsals [for "Richard III"] I taped my leg into a permanent twist so that the knee could not extend. After weeks I didn't have to do that anymore. The muscles of memory were there. Also, I had a galvanized metal strip that I taped to the underpart of my hand so that it took on a torture condition. I never went on without that. . . ."
Perhaps the most difficult tricks he'd worn were the costume props for the TV production of "Beauty and the Beast," which he did with Trish Van Devere. The ungainly mask, tusks, and hoofs required hours to put on and take off. He couldn't eat, had to suck soup through a straw, found his skin affected by the makeup. Scott has done plenty of TV, from his only series ("East Side/West Side") to "Jane Eyre," with Susannah York, and ARthur Miller's "The Price," in which he starred with Colleen Dewhurst. He won an Emmy Award for his direction of "The Andersonville Trial."
For Scott is a multimedia director as well as an actor. He directed and starred as Willy Loman in a highly successful Broadway revival of Miller's "Death of a Salesman," directed Trish Van Devere in O'Neill's "all God's Children Got Wings," and in film directed his own movie, "Rage," and "The Savage in Loose."
Scott takes a break for a second from talking about acting to get up, prowl across the red rug over to the refrigerator, and pour some milk into his coffee. Under the mirrored wall across from where he sits is a dressing table draped with a towel on which makeup brushes, powders, and creams are laid out. Scott never once glances in the mirror across from where he sits, which is almost perverse for an actor.
He begins talking about how he as an actor directs other actors: "I look on directing as problem solving. That's all. You talk it over with them. I think we're all on the same sinking raft, and you've got to figure out the best way to get out. . . ."
"Mike Nichols [who directed him on Broadway in "Plaza Suite" and Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya"] is a fine director. He does something that no other director I've ever worked with does. He creates an atmosphere for work which is second to none. . . . You are free to experiment and explore when you're working with Mike."
The film director from whom he learned most about the art is wily old John Houston, in films like the cult mystery "The List of Adrian Messenger" and in "The Bible." Scott says "Huston is a magnificent mover of the camera. Directors don't move the camera anymore. Huston still moves the camera. And is a master at it. Huston does not depend so much upon the cutting room as most modern directors That doesn't mean John is passe. He's not. He's more, in my estimation, of a classic director. . . . He doesn't depend on jump cuts, zooms, all that aritificial . . . nostril shots, crotch shots, and all that Sidney J. Furie stuff."
Scott's eyebrows shoot up like boomerangs, he gives a quick, razor-edged smile. He is enjoying himself.
When he talks about the new film he's doing with Marlon Brando, he unwinds even more. He says he's longing to play "a meanie" again after a drought of villains recently, but this time he's a hero again. He plays a Los Angeles detective who's had several friends bumped off in a mystery involving a formula for synthetic fuel invented by German scientists in 1922. Scott says the thriller is based on reality, that the Germans ran the Nazi war machine on the synthetic fuel, that after the war a captured German scientist ran a synthetic fuel plant in Texas, using the formula from 1948 to 1959, when it was mysteriously shut down.
"No one has ever known why. The scientists were dispersed, shipped back, the place just ceased to exist. Then when the Arabs bumped up the price of oil in 1973, everyone went [wild] and tried to figure out what had happened. . . . I hope [the film] makes everyone very angry. People have gotten [reamed], that's what's happened," Scott snaps. "The President has asked Congress for some $80 billion for research, right? [That's] $80 billion to research a formula that existed 32 years ago, in 1948.
"And I say to Marlon in the film, 'Yeah, you'll squeeze another 50 to 60 billion from the guy in the street for phony research for something you've already got, that you've been sitting on for the last 20 years.'"
He ends in a sort of concerto to anger, then catches himself and does a deft imitation of Brando cool, spacy, saying, "Oh, don't get excited" -- a line from the film.
George C. can make you weep -- with laughter or tears. I think of the matchless laughter of his performance in Kubrick's black comedy "Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.)" He was unforgettable as Gen. Buck Turgidson, the gum-snapping gut-thumping eye-popping war-lover and womanizer who'd rather nuke the Western Hemisphere than let "the Russkies" get a peek at the Pentagon war room.
In Hemingway's "Islands in the Stream," he plays a divorced father, finally reconciled with an alienated son, only to learn a few days later he's been killed in the war. Scott's grief in that film is so real it scalds the screen with tears.
We tend to think of Scott as a tough guy, in the traditional Hemingway sense. But something he told a member of the audience about Hemingway may be a key to Scott himself:
"So often people are put in niches and traps they may not belong in. [ Hemingway's ) devotion to machismo is not fashionable to day. It was terribly fashionable then. Machismo is an interesting word. I believe in Spanish it refers not only to masculinity or macho, the corruption, but it refers to a certain sweetness of character and a certain sensitivity in men for all living things, and particularly for females. That hasn't come to the fore lately. Macho is generally misinterpreted."
He is asked: "do you cry?"
he answers obliquely: "I think that when you're up there on that stage you're a feeling man. I hope so. . . ."