Nobody exploded better. When George C. Scott detonated, the rafters shivered, the screen shook, the dust and feathers flew and strong men ducked for cover. No wonder he made such a wonderful general: He was a human bomb.
The actor, who died yesterday at 71 of an abdominal aneurysm, left a legacy of extraordinary performances, but it was the propulsion of his rage that drove the best of them. As Gen. George S. Patton, in "Patton," he seemed to win World War II on a private stock of dark fury. As Gen. Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove," he lost World War III on the same fuel. "This commie rat was taking pictures of the War Room!" he bellowed in a spasm of aggression, wrestling with a fat Russian on the ground as the world ended all around him.
Scott's rage lurked behind smart, dark eyes and a massive body that seemed to reek of strength. He had a haggard, beautifully bashed face that was muscular and grizzled at once, and wore its busted nose like a badge of honor. In most cases, you could feel his anger building slowly, ticking, the pressure mounting. He could hold the camera on sheer stillness alone as whatever infernal temperatures inside rose and rose.
Think of him as the coiled gambler Bert Gordon in his first great screen role in Robert Rossen's "The Hustler" in 1961. Bert is a cold student of human strength and weakness who knows the calculus of the soul extremely well. He's a spider king, a monster with a human face, a corrupter driven by greed. When at last his creation, Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), finds the strength to leave him, there goes Bert: "You owe me money, Eddie!" he screams, and somehow the word "money" has never been filled with more horror.
As a philandering doctor in Richard Lester's stunning 1968 "Petulia," he listens to the lament of his ex-wife (Shirley Knight), and it becomes clear that she represents everything that was compromised and banal in his life. This time the rage comes without buildup; it simply bursts from him as a force of nature--that is, a force of his nature--and then expresses itself in a plate of cookies he hurls at the wall before he turns and stomps out, having said all he had to say.
And most memorably, it came when Tim Considine's frightened GI begins to weep about the shells, the noise and the machine-gun fire in "Patton." As comprehension breaks over the general, his eyes widen with disgust and astonishment: "Why, you're nothing but a damn coward!" he explodes more forcefully than a German 88, his hand lashing out into a slap that almost ended a career.
The rage was evidently real. It certainly was evident in two of his most famous off-screen imbroglios: his refusal to accept the Best Actor Academy Award for "Patton" in 1971--he called the Oscars a "meat parade" and watched a hockey game in his upstate New York farmhouse during the telecast--and his attempt to make a film ("The Savage Is Loose," with his wife Trish Van Devere) that bypassed the studios' rigid control and distribution system.
As is perhaps a melancholy inevitability for a man of such titanic talents and angers, his own life was stormy, too. He seemed forever in search of peace and forever unable to find it--not the last angry man, but the eternally angry man.
He was born in Wise, Va., in 1927, and served in the Marine Corps for four years beginning in 1945. After a brief flirtation with journalism at the University of Missouri, he turned to the stage and spent the '50s slowly working his way up the ladder. These can't have been easy times: He was married twice and got his nose broken five times, reportedly in bar fights.
He arrived in New York in the immediate wake of Brando and "the method," where his intensity and intelligence and his lack of pretty-boy looks served him well. His first major triumph was as Shakespeare's angriest man, Richard III.
That led to a string of supporting roles in movies--he was as stunning in Otto Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959) as he was in "The Hustler," and received Oscar nominations for both. After the breakthrough in 1964's "Strangelove"--"Mr. President, I smell a big, fat commie rat!"--he had an active, if typical, career as a movie star, climaxing in "Patton" in 1970.
That was one of the great performances in movie history, from his riveting soliloquy opening the film to his blast of rage at the cowardly private to his muted disenchantment at war's end, when he knows his day is done.
But even as he was succeeding, he was becoming angrier. After denouncing the motion picture academy in 1971 and the next year refusing to accept an Emmy for a television performance, he began the cruel slide from stardom. There were superb performances to come--in "The Hospital" and "The New Centurians"--but there were also terrible movies ahead, like the horror schlockers "The Changeling" and "Firestarter." After that last one in 1984, he left the movies, at least until 1993's "Malice" and this year's "Gloria," and concentrated on a distinguished, but smaller-scaled and presumably less compromised and more satisfying, television and theater career. As late as 1996, he was on the boards in "Inherit the Wind."
Was he ever happy? I can testify that once, yes, he was happy. He was touring in a play that brought him to Baltimore in the early 1970s, and as I was driving to my job, I happened to notice him standing at the rotting wharves that were eventually to become the Inner Harbor. He was heavily wrapped against the Chesapeake's bitter winter winds, and he had a magnificent Irish setter with him on the end of a leash. Otherwise, he was alone--man, dog, water, nature, a sharp northern wind.
I saw a look on his face--this was only in the fleeting moment between the shock of my initial recognition and the next, when the traffic removed him from my view--that I never saw on any screen. His face was at utter repose. He looked completely at peace--without another human being within 100 feet.
CAPTION: George C. Scott onstage as Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman."
CAPTION: George C. Scott as Patton, the role for which he refused to accept an Oscar.