Most people in the movie industry consider winning an Academy Award to be the pinnacle of a film performer’s career. This was evidently not the case for Hollywood legend George C. Scott. The ornery actor proved that he certainly wasn’t in it for the accolades when he was awarded an Oscar in the early 1970s. There’s no business like a no-show business – here’s a look at what went down that night, and what was up with the guy anyway.
Born in Wise, Virginia, in October 1927, George Campbell Scott was largely raised by his automobile industry executive father after losing his mother at the tender age of seven. Having moved north with his dad to Detroit, he attended the city’s Redford High School where the boy dreamed of becoming a writer. And, after serving four years in the U.S. Marine Corps just after World War II, Scott undertook a degree specializing in journalism at the University of Missouri. However, during his studies, things took a somewhat dramatic turn and Scott developed an abiding love of acting and the theater.
As a result, the by now 20-something graduated with two degrees – English and drama – in 1953. Having strode the boards as an undergraduate, Scott continued to pursue a career on the stage, winning an Obie Award in 1958 for his turns in As You Like It, Richard III and Children of Darkness. A year later, he achieved glowing praise for his Broadway performance in The Andersonville Trial. Scott also went on to direct several plays himself in the 1960s.
That decade also saw Scott dip a toe into television work but, nonetheless, he reserved his appearances for quality productions. He picked up praise for his acting in early ’60s shows The Eleventh Hour, The Virginian and The Power and the Glory. He also landed a recurring role as a social worker in the Emmy-winning CBS drama East Side/West Side. In addition, Scott guested in NBC’s 1966 western drama The Road West as Jud Barker.
By this point, Scott had also begun to make waves on the big screen. Among his most famous outings, he played General Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove in 1964, and starred alongside Ava Gardner two years later in John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning. Later notable movie roles included The Changeling in 1980, Taps a year later, and The Exorcist III in 1990.
In fact, Scott continued to flit between stage and screen throughout his career to great acclaim. In the 1970s through to the ’90s, he picked up Tony nominations for his theater performances in Uncle Vanya, Death of a Salesman and Inherit the Wind. In that same time frame, Scott also starred in several TV movies, including Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and The Ryan White Story.
Nevertheless, despite his successful career, Scott suffered numerous major health scares in his later years, including several heart attacks. Sadly, in September 1999, he died from a rupture to an abdominal aortic aneurysm at the age of 71. He left behind his fifth wife, Trish Van Devere, and seven children, including fellow thespians Campbell and Devon Scott.
Additionally, Scott also left behind numerous major awards he had amassed during the duration of his storied career. These included a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe for 1957’s Twelve Angry Men and an Emmy for an episode of U.K. TV’s ITV Saturday Night Theatre from 1971. He also won an Oscar and received three other nominations in the space of less than 15 years. However, Scott was not exactly grateful to be recognized by the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Indeed, Scott had first caught the Oscar voters’ attention in 1959, when he received a Best Supporting Actor nod for playing Claude Dancer in that year’s Anatomy of a Murder. Far from being pleased at the honor, the star in fact asked for his nomination to be withdrawn. He then repeated this request when he was nominated in the same category for a performance in 1961’s The Hustler.
And Scott warned that he would snub the Academy if he was similarly recognized for his lead role in 1970’s war epic Patton. Nevertheless, Scott still received his first Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of General George S. Patton. Much to the surprise of presenter Goldie Hawn, Scott’s name was read out as the winner at the awards ceremony in 1971. But the then-43-year-old actor was as good as his word and was nowhere to be seen.
In fact, Scott was fast asleep at the time in the up-state New York home he shared with his third wife, Canadian actress Colleen Dewhurst, and their boys, Campbell and Alex. In the shy actor’s place, Patton producer Frank McCarthy took to the podium to accept the accolade on Scott’s behalf. This made the star the first actor in Oscars history to publicly turn his nose up at the prestigious award.
So what was Scott’s problem with the Oscars? Well, way back when, he had penned a letter to the Academy in which he declared that he did not like the idea of competing with his peers. But, in a slightly stronger statement from 1971, the aggrieved actor stated, “The whole thing is a goddamn meat parade. I don’t want any part of it.”
As for his peers, the rest of Hollywood was split down the middle when it came to Scott’s divisive views. Relative newcomers, such as Ryan O’Neal, who was nominated for Best Actor alongside Scott, offered their support. However, more established names, including renowned producer Ross Hunter and veteran actor Gregory Peck, criticized Scott for his lack of gratitude.
But, when asked about his controversial stance just a day after his Oscar victory, Scott was surprisingly blasé. The star simply replied, “No feeling about it one way or another.” He was filming The Hospital at the time, a drama-comedy which – in the face of the previous furore – would help land Scott a fourth Oscar nomination just a year later.
Scott later told listings magazine TV Guide that at the time he wanted the Academy to hand over his award to the Patton Museum, but he had been thwarted by a breakdown in communication. Instead, the accolade was donated to the Virginia Military Institute’s George C. Marshall Foundation Library in Lexington, VA. Almost 50 years on, and George C. Scott’s award for playing George S. Patton is still on display at the George C. Marshall.
But, in part due to his hell-raising lifestyle, it was not just during the acting awards season that Scott proved difficult. Maureen Stapleton, his co-star in 1971’s Plaza Suite, once pleaded to the film’s director, Mike Nichols, “I don’t know what to do – I’m scared of him.” To which Nichols replied, “My dear, everyone is scared of George C. Scott.”
However, there was one industry honor that the ornery actor did actually treasure. And, ironically, that was the New York Film Critics Award Scott was given for the self-same performance that won him his Oscar. Colleen Dewhurst, his then wife, said at the time, “George thinks this is the only film award worth having.”
Nonetheless, Scott did appear to relax his opinion on the Oscars later in life. In fact, he actually attended the ceremony in 1983, despite not being nominated in any category. He was seen laughing at Honorary Award winner Mickey Rooney’s quip about feeling so elated that he would “even kiss Louis B. Mayer.”
Some believe that, far from bringing the Oscars into disrepute, Scott’s protest actually benefited the awards. Speaking in February 2018, Dennis Bingham, Film Studies Program Director at Indiana University, explained that in the early 1970s the Academy Awards “were in one of their periodic spells where the public was questioning their legitimacy.” By giving the highly resistant Scott an Oscar, it was a great way of proving that the best person – no matter how reluctant – was always rewarded.
He may have been the first declining actor, but Scott was not the first Oscar winner to shun the prize. That dubious honor went to screenwriter and director Dudley Nichols. He refused to pick up his award for penning 1935’s The Informer due to a writer’s strike. And Scott would not be the last to do so either. In 1973, Marlon Brando famously sent Apache Sacheen Littlefeather to the stage after winning Best Actor for The Godfather. She then declined the award on his behalf, in a protest against the film industry’s insensitive portrayal of Native Americans.