Piper Laurie remembers the smoldering genius of George C. Scott

We saw his imperial bravado in "Patton" and his majestic cool in "The Hustler." She saw, late in life, a "caring, warm, funny and charming" maverick.

Published September 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When we first see George C. Scott in "The Hustler," he says three words: "Cash me in." A gambler has interrupted his poker game to tell him that the pool player he backs, Minnesota Fats, is getting walloped down at the pool hall. For the next few minutes of the film, Scott hands over money, and watches Fats lose to Fast Eddie; the single sign of tension Scott betrays is to breathe deep and rest his forehead on the fingers of one hand. His oily cool irritates the upstart.

"Hey, Mister," Eddie calls out.

"The name's Gordon ... Bert Gordon," Scott tells him, as smoothly as Sean Connery saying, "Bond ... James Bond."

By the time Eddie starts blathering about how great he is, Scott's Gordon has his number.

"Stay with this kid," he tells Fats. "He's a loser."

Scott himself was anything but. He seldom even played losers, as Mel Gussow noted in the New York Times obituary on Friday, two days after Scott's death of a burst abdominal aortic aneurysm at the age of 71. In "The Hustler," he carved out a formidable space in a superb ensemble that included Jackie Gleason as Fats, Paul Newman as Eddie and Piper Laurie as Sarah, Eddie's doomed lover (Bert Gordon's chief victim). When the director, Robert Rossen, cast Scott in 1960, the actor had developed a reputation on the New York stage for his fierce originality. He'd also won an Oscar nomination for a supporting role in his second movie: the slick prosecutor from the city who tries to best folksy lawyer Jimmy Stewart in Otto Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959).

Scott brought something novel to the screen: an electric wariness. No actor was better at portraying the point where thought and instinct fuse -- and he did it best in "The Hustler" (racking up another supporting-actor nomination). If you saw it as a teenager, his image embodied everything murky and menacing in city life. He was the nightmare image of the man in the back room. Bert Gordon knows things -- in his own twisted way, he teaches Eddie that character, not talent, perfects pool players. And he owns things -- a new car each year, and a hefty portion of the winnings of each man he bankrolls. Scott gave Gordon a terrifying authority and a connoisseur's eye -- what helps him get his prongs into Eddie is that he appreciates the boy's talent. Studying the play of the game, Scott's craggy face oozes alertness from its pores, and his trim, energetic body (Scott grew massive later on) keeps him from seeming sedentary. He's like an evil version of a director who acts as an omniscient, subtly manipulative appreciator. Eddie's girl, Sarah (Laurie), recognizes that Bert wants to control Eddie because he resents Eddie's gift. Bert knows that she knows: That's why he wants to destroy her.

To many people, Scott's movie image is frozen in the magnificent, imperial bravado he brought to the title role of "Patton" in 1970. But in the '60s, Scott had developed a spiky metropolitan persona. He conveyed a consciousness of "what's going on" that transcended the class or situation of any particular character and could energize not only villains but put-upon heroes, like the one he played in 1963 and '64 on a socially conscious David Susskind-produced TV series, "East Side, West Side." Scott returned to this vein only now and then, notably as the beleaguered, disgusted surgeon in "The Hospital" (1971), which showcased Scott at his humorous-blustery pinnacle and was in the works before he won (and refused) his best actor Oscar for "Patton."

Of course, Scott was always surprisingly versatile for an actor of such strong personality. His filmography is studded with oddities, sometimes pleasurable, like the 1978 parody of '30s films "Movie Movie," and sometimes just plain strange, like 1971's mock-Sherlock Holmes film "They Might Be Giants." He was a joyous cartoon general heading the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" (1963). Indeed, Scott's Buck Turgidson was in such all-out crackpot love with the perks and the prowess of the military that the impending end of the world didn't faze him.

John Huston, who cast Scott as a razory detective in "The List of Adrian Messenger" (1962), also knew he had the backbone and grandeur to portray the patriarch's patriarch, Abraham, in "The Bible" (1966). That movie secured him the role of Patton. And that role sealed Scott in people's minds as a sort of thinking man's volcano. My own visceral impression of Scott is as the commanding yet troubling urban presence in films ranging from "Anatomy of a Murder" to Richard Lester's "Petulia," where he was touching as a divorced surgeon in love with a married "kook" (Julie Christie). And if Scott had followed "Patton" with "The Godfather" -- early on, Coppola thought him a plausible choice for Don Corleone -- his career could have had a different and more rewarding second act.

Since Piper Laurie, his co-star in "The Hustler," had also acted with him in his final work, the 1999 Showtime production of "Inherit the Wind," I called her to get her thoughts about the actor's passing. I've known Laurie since 1978. Although she initially felt too sad to talk -- she'd been up till 4 in the morning the day the news of Scott's death reached her ("I turned on the television, and it was all about George. So I went back in the bedroom, and just stayed in bed") -- she wanted to convey her respect and affection for a co-worker she had collaborated with over the course of 40 years. They met in the late '50s when they were cast in a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" version of Maxwell Anderson's "Winterset," produced in New York.

In "Winterset," Scott played the gangster character, Trock, and lived up to the rep he was building as a bar-crawler and a brawler who never brought his drinking to work -- but did bring his unsettling intensity. "George often used to come in to rehearsals a little late, with bandages, black eyes, and I would always hear that there was a woman involved. I was afraid of him: terrified. We didn't have any dialogue together -- my scenes were with Don Murray -- but George was always there, and I don't think I said one word to him. Then, in 1960, we met again. Rossen had already set me for 'The Hustler' and he asked me to go with him to meet George, who was then appearing in a play called 'The Wall.' George was very unhappy with it, I can't remember exactly why; he had done most of the run of the show with a broken arm, and there was a change of leading ladies -- he was still suffering from the experience when I talked about it with him recently. Anyway, we went backstage and took George to a bar around the corner."

Did Rossen think having Laurie there would reduce the tension, since she'd appeared with Scott in "Winterset"? "I don't know," Laurie laughed. "Maybe he was scared of George, too! I think he really wanted me to be there for company. Rossen and I were spending a lot of time together as friends back then, talking about the character and the movie. And George was known as an up-and-comer who was, somehow, dangerous."

Laurie and Rossen sat side by side, with George opposite, and as they drank their beers Laurie remembers thinking, "I had never been that close to him before; I was always on the other side of the room. And I don't think we said two words to each other that night! Then, when we started the movie weeks later, we never spoke to each other except when we did our scenes. I was still very uneasy with him -- and I decided not to worry about it because that was useful for my performance, and for the movie."

Since Scott was notorious for his derision of Method acting guru Lee Strasberg, I wondered if Laurie had been able to discern how he put himself completely into character. "I could never see the strings," she said, "nor was I looking for them. To me, making the movie, George and Bert were one person. When I dared to look him in the eye, it was Bert-George, George-Bert. In that scene at the party when I'm drunk and I come down the stairs and he whispers something in my ear and I get upset and throw champagne in his face. I don't know what he said to me; I couldn't hear anything except some kind of gibberish." Years later she and Scott talked about why that scene proved to be so potent: "We agreed that it wasn't important that I hear -- it was more important that, whatever he said, I played against what I imagined he said. We never discussed it at the time, but the intuition between us was powerful, and we used it to get at that part of myself." The talented group on "The Hustler" didn't think they were making movie history: "There wasn't an intellectual awareness, at least on my part. We just enjoyed each other and felt connected and productive and worked very hard."

Scott was one of the first actors of his generation to make negative emotions like anger and disdain charismatic, even sexy. "He wasn't afraid to get to those parts of himself," says Laurie, "and for men back then that was especially rare. Young actors had a fear of self-exposure. Now a lot of young actors aren't so afraid to show their emotions -- but, unfortunately, a lot of them don't have good judgment or taste. George trusted the flash of genius or originality that he had." Not too long ago, Scott told Laurie a story about a line reading that set audiences bristling when "The Hustler" premiered in 1961. It comes when Newman's Eddie avenges Laurie's Sarah and salvages his own pride by whipping Minnesota Fats his way, not Bert's. Scott breaks Bert's usual knowing glare and roars out to Eddie, "YOU OWE ME MONEY!" As Laurie recalls, "George had a big argument with Rossen about that; Rossen did not think that was the right reading. He wanted a more conventional 'You owe me money.' But George insisted on doing it his way, and he did."

Laurie surmises that his choice not to appear at the Oscars or accept his award for "Patton" may have cemented his reputation for difficulty (though it didn't stop the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from nominating him for best actor afterward, for "The Hospital"). "It was an unheard-of gesture; on the one hand, people respected that decision in the deepest kind of way, but they also didn't understand it, and it may have added to the impression that George was a person they couldn't handle." But she thinks the main reason the huge roles dried up for him in movies was that "he didn't have that thing that some of us just don't have -- of being commercially clever about a career and hiring powerful people to work it out. He did have some awfully good parts after 'Patton,' but not great parts; mostly, he was good in them. You need youth, and powerful people looking out for you constantly."

Laurie "didn't set eyes on him" for almost three decades after "The Hustler," but when she did, in 1990, Scott gave her an enormous bear hug and picked her up in the air. He had given up drinking; the personality that Laurie now got to know was "caring, warm, funny and charming." Several years later, she played the early-Alzheimer's wife to his retired police chief in a short-lived TV series called "Traps," filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia. "He was fun to work with, and we laughed; I was flattered that he wanted me to play with him." By the time he played Matthew Harrison Brady and she played Mrs. Brady in this year's TV production of "Inherit the Wind," "We were kind of like old marrieds. We didn't have to talk, yet I was comfortable saying anything I wanted to. I knew he could be nasty and sharp, but he never was to me. Maybe he could let his gentleness out with people when he knew they wouldn't mean him any harm."

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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