Monday, March 7, 2011

From Mom's Mixed-Up Files: George C. Scott

My mom was an energetic correspondent, especially when aggrieved. I inherited this trait from her. But I had no idea how deep hers ran.

When she died, I found a treasure trove of letters, in which she complained about everything from construction on the Whitestone Bridge [right] on opening day at Shea Stadium to PC Richard on the failure not only of her DVD/VCR combo, but on its website's woeful inability to calculate the number of miles between her house and the nearest repair center.

Often she was a Donna Quixote tilting at windmills, but occasionally her advocacy did bear fruit; after she sat at an intersection down the road from her house and kept a log of traffic light changes and cars backed up behind people waiting to make a left turn, the village actually installed a left-turn lane.

But I was completely surprised to find among the weary bureaucratic responses to her single-spaced diatribes, a few letters from celebrities.

Partly because I myself had, as a teenager, done the same thing (see my blog post about it here), and gotten responses from people like Michael Palin of Monty Python [left] and John Belushi, en route to becoming a professional celebrity pursuer at Rolling Stone.

But I was also surprised because she'd framed some letters she'd gotten when she was younger from the likes of Adlai Stevenson, but these writers shoved into a folder deep in the recesses of her house -- Kurt Vonnegut and George C. Scott -- were pretty impressive "gets."
My mom wrote to Scott to compliment him on a TV series
I had never heard of, "East Side West Side." Scott, then 36, had mostly been a stage actor; he had already been in The Hustler but had not yet been seen in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. (It should be noted that when she wrote him, she was 26, with a 2-year-old -- me -- and was soon to be pregnant with her second kid.)

I looked up East Side West Side just now [photo up top] and discovered it's exactly the kind of show I would (hopelessly) want to watch or write for, nearly a half century later. It aired on CBS in 1963-4.  Scott played a social worker; the supporting cast included Cicely Tyson, Elizabeth Wilson and Richard Dysart. Amazingly for the era, the subject matter included prostitution and statutory rape.

According to Wikipedia, although the show got eight Emmy nominations (and won one for directing, for an episode with guest star James Earl Jones), advertisers didn't support it, and several stations in the South refused to air it. Eventually Tyson's character was replaced with Barbara Feldon, but it still got cancelled. It's not available on DVD.

Scott's letter to my mother is an amazing artifact. Not just because he hand typed it, not just because he included his home address (albeit mistyped), but because he predicts the TV universe decades later.
In case you can't see this on your computer, he writes of "enervating skirmishes with the network" and then concludes:
We can only hope the future of commercial television will be freer and more mature. Failing this, perhaps pay television will give the more selective viewer the representation on public airways which is presently denied him. With little faith in the former improbability, I intend to support the latter eventuality.
According to IMDB, Scott tried episodic TV a few more times late in his career: playing the title role in the 1987 sitcom Mr. President. created by the impressive triumverate of Johnny Carson, Gene Reynolds and Ed. Weinberger and co-starring Madeline Kahn, more than a decade before The West Wing. He also played a retired cop in 1994's Traps, and the following year was in a failed Mary Tyler Moore newspaper drama called New York News (which boasts an amazing roster of writers, and directors including Michael Apted and Lost's Jack Bender).

It should be noted that HBO's first hour-long drama, Oz, did not air until 1997; Scott died in 1999, but hopefully he knew he had been onto something. Today his son Campbell is living proof of the diversity of the cable universe, playing the complicated Boris Kuester von Jurgens-Rateniczon on USA Network's Royal Pains [right].

Still, I'd like to see those episodes of East Side, West Side. 


JIm Watt said...

Hi David:

Reading this sweet story makes me wonder if Euripides didn't grumble about the selection committee for tragedies to some of his fans! Just think of some of the great plays that never made it to the festival! Maybe Euripides had a "Melampus and the Price of Madness" or a "Jason and Apsyrtus" denied by the judges because of their risky hints of blasphemy. Anyway, it was fun to think about the tapes of Scott's show (if they exist!) moldering away on a shelf somewhere. Jim Watt

Carl said...

Still in awe of GCS's wordsmithing. I find it hard to imagine a celebrity of 2011 able to write as well as this example.

Alexandra said...

I was impressed by Scott's kind attentions to your mom, and by his prediction of the future. But his prose style didn't blow me away.

I bet Natalie Portman and James Franco can both cook up a pretty snappy sentence.

Doctor Noe said...

David, I for one am impressed by this post. Scott was a contradiction – curmudgeonly and tender in the same person. I encountered him briefly in my taxicab (I drove hack from 1971 - 74) when I picked him up on CPW and took him down the road to Carnegie Hall. He was on a bender and he was totally outrageous in a good way.

I do remember those East Side West Sides and it's funny thinking about Cicely Tyson, Mrs. Miles Davis, who has outlasted everybody. She was a presenter the other night on the NAACP Image Awards.

His son is a more subtle talent.

david.sheward said...

Great blog post. My uncle also got a letter from Scott about East Side/West Side. You might be interested in my Rage and Glory: The Volatile Life and Career of George C. Scott. I have a whole chapter on EastSide. Thanks, David Sheward book