April 19, 1999 12:00 PM

More than three decades ago actress Pippa Scott reached her apex as a television star in the hit western drama The Virginian. But it wasn’t until 1993 that she found her true calling, in a place where the drama—and the gunfire—were real. That was when Scott was invited on a human-rights group’s trip to war-ravaged Sarajevo. Video camera in hand, she spent her days visiting crumbling medical clinics and refugee camps teeming with women and children. At night she struggled to sleep in a house bordering a cemetery, where besieged Sarajevans came under cover of darkness to bury their dead. “When you’ve seen people starving, people killed, when you’ve seen hospitals with blood flowing everywhere, you change forever,” says Scott, 63. “You just can’t keep quiet about it.”

And she hasn’t. Determined to ensure that war’s horrors are never hidden from view, Scott has made a mission of preserving and publicizing the nightmarish images. As founder of the Los Angeles-based International Monitor Institute, she has amassed some 4,000 hours of film, video and audio tapes substantiating genocide and human-rights abuses around the world. Now, against the backdrop of devastation in Kosovo, she finds her efforts validated once more. “It’s the 21st-century way of telling these stories,” she says, “and making it impossible to deny they ever happened.”

Scott’s work constitutes an almost unimaginable leap from the glamorous life she led as a star of such 1950s movies as Auntie Mame and John Ford’s The Searchers, as a Hollywood hostess who once threw parties for the likes of Mary Tyler Moore and Dallas’s Larry Hagman and Linda Gray, and later as a successful marketer of the popular Thighmaster. “This,” says Scott of her life’s latest chapter, “is a whole other world.”

“With funding from foundations and private donations, she oversees a staff of nine who collect and index footage of heartrending scenes: the Bosnian Serb military rounding up Muslims before the 1995 massacre of some 7,000 at Srebrenica; prisoners in Bosnian camps; militiamen murdering two pleading women in Kigali, Rwanda. “You never get used to it,” Scott says of watching footage from journalists, amateur videographers and others. “A child’s shoe can send you into a storm of sadness.”

Scott has already made her influence felt. The United Nations tribunal prosecuting war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, for instance, has employed the Institute to index evidence. “It’s an amazing way of making sure these mass murderers are brought to justice,” says Kenneth Roth, who heads the New York City-based Human Rights Watch. Though eyewitnesses can testify to the crimes, says Scott, “People pay much more attention to the visual image.”

She learned the power of the image in Los Angeles, where she was born in 1935, the daughter of screenwriter Allan Scott, the Oscar-nominated author of six Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, and his actress wife, Laura Straub. She was 13 when her uncle, movie producer Adrian Scott, was jailed for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His notoriety as one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten, Scott says, made it hard for her father to find work. “My parents became closed up and frightened,” she says. “I could feel they were suffering.”

After dropping out of Radcliffe and then UCLA, Scott studied acting at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. At 19, she landed the lead in Broadway’s Child of Fortune. “It wasn’t a big hit,” she says, “but I got marvelous notices.” That success propelled her to her screen roles and then The Virginian. It was on the set of an early 1960s TV pilot that she met advertising executive Lee Rich. “He had an incredible sense of energy and drive,” says Scott. They married in 1964, and five years later Rich and his partner Merv Adelson launched Lorimar Productions, which scored a hit with its first TV show, The Waltons. Busy raising the couple’s two daughters—Jessica, now 33, and Miranda, 28—Scott left acting but took an active role behind the scenes at Lorimar. “I used to consult her about everything,” says Rich. Yet without an official title at the company, says Scott, “I felt that I began to disappear. My thoughts were, ‘Am I complete? Am I fulfilled?’ Well, I wasn’t.”

Divorced in 1981, Scott moved with Miranda to New York City, where she had been doing small theater roles and raising her daughter. Then, longtime friend Mary Anne Schwalbe invited her to a meeting sponsored by the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, a private advocacy group Schwalbe headed. Intrigued, she became increasingly active in the group and in 1991 began making short documentaries on its missions to war zones. “All my life I had kept away from politics because my parents got into trouble for being politically involved,” she says, “but I found myself in the middle of a very political thing, and it was wildly exciting.”

It was also terrifying. On the group’s 1993 trip to Sarajevo and Croatia she dodged bullets and witnessed firsthand the ravages of war. “I couldn’t believe that people were treated that badly and nobody knew about it,” says Scott, who wept on the flight home. “All the frivolous work I had been doing before suddenly seemed unimportant.”

The Institute’s first task was to provide carefully indexed footage for the U.N. tribunal looking into crimes in the former Yugoslavia. Now, Scott is working to assemble similar collections on Rwanda, Cambodia, Burma and Iraq. “She is perhaps the foremost historian on the image of war crimes,” says Human Rights Watch’s Roth. The work has brought Scott a certain satisfaction. “There’s a glow that I never saw before,” says daughter Jessica, now in movie advertising.

Then again, that glow might come from Scott’s latest flame—her ex-husband, Rich, now running his own film company. After nearly two decades apart the pair are dating again. “It’s kind of exciting,” she says. “I just told him I wouldn’t cook.” Not that she’d have the time. Busy with her Institute, Scott is determined to keep bringing war crimes to light. “If there is another tape out there that can bring someone to justice,” she says, “I want to have it.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles

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