Theater producer/director Joseph Papp, who has discovered more than his share of the country's great acting talent, sat in his office at the New York Shakespeare Festival one morning quite a few years ago trying to decide just who was the greatest American actor. George C. Scott, he offered, might have been this country's finest actor, if only he hadn't been swallowed up in the commercial fantasyland of Hollywood.
How strange, so long after that conversation, to see George Scott turn in the kind of performance that theater people remember him for. And to see him do it in that most commercial of mass fantasies: television.
Scott appears as Ebenezer Scrooge in a new adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (CBS, Monday, 8-10 p.m.). He has always been the kind of actor who brought a rugged stature to any role. Like Anthony Quinn and Lee J. Cobb, he fills the screen with a looming presence. Frequently, as in ''Patton,'' he puts something behind this presence, as well, bringing heaps of praise down upon his head. But back in his Shakespeare Festival days in New York he, like Cobb, sent shivers up and down the spines of theater audiences who saw in him the thinking and instinct that made him one of a kind.
He was the sort of actor who could one day give us an American Lear.
And that, in a way, is what he's after in this television drama. Because he and director Clive Donner have plumbed Dickens's often blandly popularized masterpiece and found in it a character and a world that pull at the soul.
The impulse to create ''A Christmas Carol'' came out of Dickens's long anguish over the plight of poor children in England. Living in unspeakably horrible conditions, these children struggled for the crumbs of life under the tables and unseeing eyes of the well-to-do.
Scrooge embodied the moral deadness of the age. He had to be a character of almost impenetrably icy indifference. But he also had to have some capacity for redemption. For the character to live, he had to be invested with a gloom so deep that he, and we, could find reason to forgive his indifference.
It's hard to associate all of this interior meaning with a novel and play that have always been presented to us in cheery caricature. But it's all there - and then some.
CBS is billing this IBM presentation as ''the first full-length, non-musical retelling of the great Christmas story in 30 years and the first ever in color.'' Far more important than that string of qualifiers might suggest, this may be the first filmed telling of the tale as it should be told. Certainly, it's the first time I've seen it done like this.
Here is a ''Christmas Carol'' that broods with stormy anger over great social injustice, even as it celebrates the human spirit.
At the center of that storm is Scott, whose mirthless, illogical laughter bespeaks a fault running right down the whole formidable promontory of his character. His thoughts take a melancholy grip on life. He speaks like a man distracted with the futility and endlessness of human toil. In his mouth, ''Bah, humbug!'' is more curse than caricature. You might not like this fellow, but you certainly recognize his mortal dimensions.
Scott gets more than a little help from his friends in bringing this character to life. Donner has assembled a cast remarkable for its acting depth: Roger Rees, who played the title role in ''Nicholas Nickleby,'' portrays Scrooge's nephew, Fred; David Warner plays Bob Cratchit; Susannah York is his wife (and two of her own children play Cratchit offspring); Angela Pleasance is the ghost of Christmas Past; the Royal Shakespeare's Edward Woodward plays the Ghost of Christmas Present; and on and on.
These figures inhabit a world that Donner has painted in dark, Turner-esque colors, with just that same inner luminosity.
In this realistic setting, the various ghost visitants become vehicles for Scrooge to ruminate on a life full of lost opportunity for love and humanity. They are not, for the most part, oracular apparitions. They are a mirror into which a complicated, bitter man must look. Through them Scrooge confronts the inescapable consequences of his own thoughts and actions.
These consequences are embodied by the two children Ignorance and Want, whose appearance in this version makes one want to do what Scrooge in fact does: Ask the ghost to hide them again. What Dickens was saying, and what this film powerfully emphasizes, is that they always remain hidden. But they are always there.
In the end, it is neither the plight of these children nor the foreshadowed death of Tiny Tim that changes Scott's Scrooge. It is the prospect of his own death, and of losing the very human light he had labored so long to turn off in others. When this Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning, he leaps to embrace his fellowman, as if he is embracing the hope for his own life.
Which is exactly what ''A Christmas Carol'' was written to say.