February 07, 1977 12:00 PM

They say that by the time a man is 50 he has the face he deserves. Eight months short of the half-century mark, George C. Scott’s is a study in retribution: a nose battered flat and sideways in barroom brawls; lines etched in alcohol by a thousand hard-drinking nights and painful mornings after. His smile, when it comes, is equivocal; the demons that have driven him to trashing dressing rooms, ramming his fist through backstage mirrors and tearing into fellow actors and directors seem never to be far away. His December appearance in the NBC production of Beauty and the Beast, which required long itchy days in the mask of a boar, struck some colleagues as poetic justice—and a masterstroke of typecasting.

But the beauty who tamed the beast has apparently mellowed the man behind the tusks. The miracle worker is actress Trish Van Devere, 34, Scott’s fifth wife. On the set of Beauty, George for once confined his beastliness to the part—and Arthur Penn, who directed the couple’s current Broadway smash Sly Fox, reports the experience, save for one blow-up, was an unadulterated “delight.” Today Scott and Van Devere are living out a sedate, baronial existence on 13 manicured acres in Greenwich, Conn., which they soon hope to improve with a putting green, a stable, a tennis court and a child. Though he still insists that multiple alimonies (he earlier had six kids) are the only reason he is still acting, he admits: “I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life, and Trish is certainly the main reason.”

Ironically, the two met only because of one of Scott’s splenetic outbursts—a screamfest with director John Huston and actress Tina Aumont in 1970 on the set of The Last Run in Spain. Scott eventually drove both of them from the film, and Trish—in the afterglow of her movie debut in Where’s Poppa?—was flown in to replace Aumont. At about the same time, Scott’s then-wife (for the second time) Colleen Dewhurst finished her scenes with the new director and left. “I told George I didn’t go out with married men,” Trish recalls, “but suddenly we were just irrevocably locked together.”

Irrevocably, but not necessarily successfully. After The Last Run came the sinkable The Day of the Dolphin and The Savage Is Loose. In 1975 Scott directed Trish in a Broadway revival of O’Neill’s inaccessible All God’s Chillun Got Wings. But none of their collaborations approached Scott’s solo triumphs, and their marriage began to falter as well. “We were making each other miserable,” Scott remembers, “and we decided maybe we should take action.” He turned not to lawyers this time but to a Santa Monica gestalt therapist, Robert Resnick, whom Trish had already been seeing. “He was a good man,” Scott says now. “We were very lucky.”

Since then, George adds, “We’ve never been apart for more than two weeks.” She joined him, for example, while he worked in Hawaii on the film adaptation of Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream (to be released in March). “One of the big dangers of showbiz marriages,” he says from experience, “is that one person goes one way and the other goes another. After a year, you come together and realize you have nothing in common. We have really tried to avoid that.”

They enjoy suggesting their life is like a sitcom:

George: “Why, even if I say I want to play poker, there’s an uproar.”

Trish: “May I please have an asterisk? Once in all the time I’ve known him has he ever wanted to play poker.”

George: “And what happened? She started in, ‘What’s the matter? Whaaay do you want to play poker? What’s wrong?’ So I said to hell with it, and that took care of the poker.”

Such minispats are a long way from the eruptions of his often traumatic past. From an unhappy boyhood in Michigan, he recalls mainly terror of his father, the death of his mother when he was 8—and an “abnormally close” relationship with his protective older sister. He joined the Marines at 17, and a long stint on the burial detail at Arlington National Cemetery started him drinking. After his discharge he studied journalism at the University of Missouri, landed a teaching job at nearby Stephens College for Women, and married a student named Carolyn Hughes. Soon after, he fathered his first daughter, Victoria (now a schoolteacher), and then eventually left it all behind, including an illegitimate child.

By the time Scott mounted his successful assault on New York’s casting offices, with only some college and stock productions behind him, he was married again—to actress Pat Reed, mother of Matthew Scott, now 19, and Devon, 18. By night Scott worked as a check sorter in a bank until his 1957 breakthrough in a New York Shakespeare Festival production of Richard Ill, and his establishment as a brillant, unconventional talent. That led to playing opposite Colleen Dewhurst in the Circle in the Square. “Jack Barrymore used to call these meetings ‘bus accidents,’ ” Scott recounts. He and Dewhurst got divorces to marry each other in 1960.

Then came another series of professional coups—and marital crack-ups. Scott received an Oscar nomination for Anatomy of a Murder and refused one for his work in The Hustler. Later he was lionized for his performances in Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Petulia (1968). But along the way his marriage to Dewhurst began dissolving in drink and drowned in his pursuit of Ava Gardner on the set of The Bible in 1964. Then he and Dewhurst remarried in 1967, and he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Later, during the filming of Patton in 1970, he fought continually with director Franklin Schaffner and sat out two shooting days with a bottle.

Enter Trish, with her wholesome good looks and thoroughbred charms. The only daughter of the horsey, affluent Dressels of Tenafly, N.J., she had become a relative radical at little Ohio Wesleyan University, and later intrepidly toured the redneck South with the mostly black Free Southern Theater. Afterward she helped bankroll the New York Poor People’s Theater with the weekly check she got for playing Meredith Lord on the ABC soaper One Life to Live. A quiet, unhappy marriage to college classmate Grant Van Devere had long since ended.

Trish’s stubborn idealism somewhat nettles Scott, whose ideology is vaguely more conservative than hers. In a verbal free-for-all worthy of Norman Lear’s All’s Fair, he charges her with “liberalistic excess,” while she snaps back that “you once voted for Nixon and I’ll never let you forget it.” In 1976, though, she met him partway, throwing her weight behind “the most middle-of-the-road politician I’ve ever campaigned for”—Birch Bayh.

Such semiaffectionate sparring aside, Scott is concerned by the generation gap his marriage has had to bridge. “Fourteen years—that really worries me. In 11 years I’ll be 60, and she’ll be quite a young woman. Nevertheless,” he vows, “I’m not going to worry.” “Thank God for that,” says Trish. “Haven’t we made progress!”

Despite his inordinate success, acting still creates in Scott the resentment that comes with an offer one can’t refuse. He is deeply dismayed that daughter Devon has become an actress, now featured in ABC’s Tony Randall Show. (“I couldn’t chain her to the bed,” he frets.) Claiming he would gladly chuck the adulation for a chance just to putter around the house, he maintains that “you can’t steal enough money in a lifetime to make up for the psychological damage” of an acting career. “There’s no question you get pumped up by the recognition,” he has observed, “and then a kind of self-loathing sets in when you realize you’re enjoying it.” Like Trish, though, he brightens when talk turns to future projects such as one-person shows for both of them next year—his playing Sigmund Freud, hers portraying 19th-century feminist Victoria Woodhull. Then there are recurrent plans for making historical teledramas of the Napoleonic era together and his recurrent dream of a rep company all his own.

For the moment, at least, Scott’s explosive midlife crises with wives, the theater and most of all himself seem past. “Who was that great leader of Alcoholics Anonymous who said we live from day to day?” he cracks. “Perhaps,” ventures Trish, “George finds it easier to air his feelings, and not to keep everything bottled up so that eventually it’s bound to explode.” Scott’s answer is more basic. “You realize you just can’t keep making the same damn mistakes over and over.” The 49-year-old face relaxes. “I am going to be 50,” he adds half-smiling. “You have to grow up sometime.”

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