The Heel with Charm: Zachary Scott
Smooth-talking, darkly handsome and effortlessly sophisticated, Zachary Scott excelled at roles that depicted him as the charming cad you love to hate. In most of his nearly 40 Hollywood features, Scott was cast as the villain who achieved his nefarious ends through the use of his magnetic appeal. Although the actor once claimed to enjoy such roles (“provided that it is villainy with charm, evil with originality, and murder with music”), their frequency ultimately served to stagnate his once-promising career. As a result, while Scott displayed a genuine acting talent in a number of films, most notably as a sharecropper in search of a better life for his family in The Southerner (1945), he is best known for his work as a cad, and played this role to the hilt in his four films noirs: The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), Danger Signal (1945), and Guilty Bystander (1950).
Zachary Thomson Scott, Jr., was born in Austin, Texas, on February 24, 1914, the youngest of three children and the only boy. According to the actor’s studio biography, Scott got his first taste of performing at the age of three, while his prominent surgeon father was stationed during World War I in Biloxi, Mississippi. In an effort to provide a diversion for recovering soldiers, Dr. Scott invited his young son to participate in an entertainment program; dressed in a sailor suit for the occasion, Scott reportedly recalled that “the sound of the applause was sweet in his ears.” Another source, however, states that Scott made his debut at four years old, performing an impersonation of Charlie Chaplin at a local talent show. His early “stage work” notwithstanding, Scott was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, and after graduating from high school in 1931, he enrolled as a medical student at the University of Texas. But it didn’t take long for Scott to realize that the life of a doctor was not for him.
“I realized I was not emotionally qualified to do the things a doctor has to do,” Scott said once. “I couldn’t bear to see people burdened with anxiety or to see anyone die.”
Instead, having participated in several high school and college drama productions, Scott set his sights on an acting career. He quit school after his third year at the University of Texas and signed on as a cabin boy on a cotton freighter bound for England, where he landed a role in his first professional stage production, The Outsider. To explain his southern accent, Scott claimed that he hailed from Australia.
Remaining in London for the next year and a half, Scott was seen in more than 20 plays. In 1935, he returned to the United States and, on his 21st birthday, married his college sweetheart, aspiring actress Elaine Anderson. The couple spent six months pounding the boards in New York, but when their efforts proved fruitless, they returned to Texas where their daughter, Waverly, was born later in the year. To support his small family, Scott landed a job as the director of the Austin Little Theater and he and his wife returned to college, majoring in Theater Arts. Three years later, Scott landed a role in his first Broadway production, Circle of Chalk, followed by The Damask Cheek, The Rock, and Those Endearing Young Charms. While appearing as a devil-may-care aviator in the latter play, Scott caught the attention of Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner, who reportedly offered the actor a contract on the spot.
Scott’s first film assignment at Warners also marked his entry into the world of film noir, playing the title role in The Mask of Dimitrios (1944). In this atmospheric feature, Scott portrayed the title role of a notorious criminal named Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose body – it is believed – washes up on the shores of Istanbul at the start of the film. Dimitrios’ story is told through the efforts of a local novelist, Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre), who becomes intrigued with Dimitrios’ life and tracks down a series of offbeat characters who help him piece together the man’s past. The film earned mixed reviews from critics, but Scott was hailed for his performance; one of his best notices came from the normally acerbic New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther, who wrote: “As the object of everyone’s attention, Zachary Scott . . . presents the rascally Dimitrios as a blue-steel American gangster type.” The following year, he was cast in his second film noir, Mildred Pierce (1945).
An outstanding example from the noir era (and one of my all-time favorites), this feature centers on the title character, played by Joan Crawford in her Academy Award-winning performance, and her relationships with her pretentious, self-absorbed daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth); her stubborn but loyal ex-husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett); and her second spouse, the charming, unscrupulous Monte Beragon (Scott). As the film begins, a series of gunshots ring out and Monte falls dead, muttering only a single word, “Mildred.” The remainder of the feature involves a series of flashbacks revealing the events that led to Monte’s murder, including Mildred’s rise from abandoned housewife to wealthy businesswoman, her marriage to Monte as part of her ongoing obsession with pleasing her daughter, and her shocking discovery that Monte and Veda are lovers. Although Mildred confesses to Monte’s murder, however, it is ultimately revealed that Veda is the killer. (And I’m not ashamed to admit that, on my first viewing of the film — more than two decades ago, now — I was convinced that Mildred was the killer until the final reveal!)
In a cast replete with superb performances, Scott was a standout, and was hailed by reviewers, including the Hollywood Review critic, who raved: “Zachary Scott is allowed to make of his assignment one of his most distinguished performances, a scoundrel so polished in his interpretation that he makes you feel pity for him. His is great acting.”
After his successful performance in Mildred Pierce, Scott starred in one of the best films of his career, The Southerner (1945). Director Jean Renoir later explained that he cast Scott in the role of a struggling southern farmer because, as a native of the south, the actor “contributed a kind of exterior accuracy to the film that I found to be extremely valuable.” Although some reviewers were put off by the film’s unrelenting realism, Scott was singled out in several publications, including The New York Times, whose reviewer applauded his “restrained and powerful” performance.
Next, Scott returned to his dastardly ways in his third film noir, Danger Signal (1945), where he played Ronald Mason, a writer who makes his living less from the pen than by murdering lonely women for their money. After killing a New York housewife at the start of the film, Ronald makes his way to Los Angeles, where he first becomes involved with stenographer Hilda Fenchurch (Faye Emerson), but swiftly transfers his affections to her younger sister, Anne (Mona Freeman), when he learns that the girl will inherit a significant trust fund when she marries. Hilda eventually figures out his scheme and makes plans to kill him, but she is ultimately unable to bring herself to carry out the deed. But no matter – Mason meets an unceremonious and well-deserved end when he trips and falls over a cliff while being chased by the husband of the woman he killed at the start of the film.
Although Danger Signal was a disappointment at the box office, Scott was once again singled out for praise; the reviewer for Independent wrote that his role was “well-played,” and in Motion Picture Herald, the critic wrote: “Zachary Scott portrays with skill and a fine sense of timing the polished man of letters whose special talent is persuading his women to write suicide notes before he arranges their demise.” However, with few exceptions, Scott’s best films were now behind him. During the remainder of the decade, he was cast in a series of mostly forgettable features, including Her Kind of Man (1946), portraying what one reviewer called “another of those despicable weasel-like creatures.” He fared better, however, with Cass Timberlane (1947), where he was third billed as a cad who tries to steal the affections of Lana Turner from her wholesome spouse, played by Spencer Tracy; and Flamingo Road (1948) – a tawdry Joan Crawford starrer that was hailed in Variety as “loaded with heartbreak, romance, and stinging violence” (and is one of my personal guilty pleasures).
While Scott struggled with his on-screen career, his life away from the cameras appeared to be on a downward slide as well. In 1949, he nearly lost his life while sailing in a rubber raft on the Pacific Ocean with friend and fellow actor John Emery. When a riptide rocked the boat, Scott was thrown overboard and struck his head on a rock, knocking him unconscious. Fortunately, he was rescued by Emery, who rushed him to the hospital. Later that year, after enduring countless rumors about the state of his marriage, Scott was sued for divorce by his wife of 14 years, who charged the actor with mental cruelty. Although some speculated that the rift between the couple was due in part to Elaine’s resentment over abandoning her budding acting career, another, more prominent rumor claimed that Elaine was having an affair with writer John Steinbeck. (The latter theory appeared to be more than idle gossip; a year after her divorce was granted, Elaine married the writer, with whom she remained until his death in 1968.)
Professionally, Scott experienced the busiest year of his film career in 1950, appearing in a total of five features, including Born to Be Bad, a so-so drama that failed to attract audiences despite direction from Nicholas Ray and a cast that included Robert Ryan and Joan Fontaine, and Guilty Bystander, his final film noir.
In this well-done feature, Scott was teamed for the fourth time with Faye Emerson, playing Max Thursday, an alcoholic ex-cop who is forced to rouse himself from his constant liquor-induced haze when his young son is kidnapped. Thursday encounters a number of quirky characters during his desperate search, including a mysterious doctor (Jed Prouty) and a gang of jewel smugglers but, ultimately, the winding trail of clues leads the former detective to the tawdry riverfront hotel that he calls home, where he learns that the kidnapper is none other than the establishment’s proprietor, Smitty (Mary Boland).
Upon its release, Guilty Bystander received only lukewarm reviews, but Scott was pointed out by Bosley Crowther, who wrote in The New York Times that Scott “plays the agonized pursuer with genuine intensity.” After this feature, Scott was seen in such films as Let’s Make it Legal, a weak comedy co-starring Claudette Colbert; The Secret of Convict Lake, a box-office disappointment featuring Glenn Ford and Gene Tierney; and Lightning Strikes Twice, the last film under his Warner Bros. contract.
But the actor was in the news for more than his cinematic contributions that year. While vacationing in Hawaii in July 1951, he was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct for dancing the hula barefoot on the sidewalk outside a bar. According to the arresting officer, Scott was “belligerent” and it “took two men to arrest him.” Despite this incident, the actor’s personal life took an upward turn the following year when he married wife number two, actress Ruth Ford. The two went on to appear in several productions together, and Scott later legally adopted Ford’s daughter, Shelley. But a few months after the wedding, in November 1952, Scott was in the headlines again; this time, he was arrested in a bar in New Orleans, Louisiana, after the actor, his wife, and several friends were seen drinking with two black patrons and charged with violating the state’s segregation laws. At the night court hearing on the incident, Scott testified that he had visited the bar to find a black harmonica player by the name of “Papa” Lightfoot, and had been invited by two black patrons to join them for a drink.
“[I went] to scout talent for USO shows which I and others in my profession are asked to take to the troops overseas. I’m not asked at such times to perform only for white troops or I would not go,” Scott said. “I was proud to drink with them, but, of course, I would not have done so had I known it was against the law.”
The charges against Scott and the others were dropped, but the presiding judge, Edwin A. Babylon, admonished them: “When you’re in the South, if you do go into these kind of places, go just as spectators and don’t drink.”
With his run-ins with the law behind him, Scott began to refocus on his professional career. He was seen on the small screen in numerous programs throughout the decade, including Lux Video Theater, on which he recreated his role as Monte Beragon in an abridged version of Mildred Pierce. In addition to his television work, Scott returned to the stage for a variety of productions during the 1950s, and such feature films as Appointment in Honduras (1953), directed by Jacques Tourneur; Shotgun, a routine oater starring Sterling Hayden and Yvonne DeCarlo; and Violent Stranger (1957), a crime thriller with Faith Domergue.
With the onset of the 1960s, Scott continued dividing his talents between the small screen and feature films, including such made-for-television movies as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1960) and Jane Eyre (1961), and big screen features including La Joven (1960), also known as The Young One, in which he played a bigoted game warden. Scott spoke highly of the latter film after its release, calling it “one of the two best pictures I’ve made,” but it was a box-office disaster, hampered by poor production values and a convoluted script.
After a two-year absence, Scott was back on the big screen in 1962 for It’s Only Money (1962), a typically silly Jerry Lewis comedy, and starred the following year in the stage production of Rainy Night in Newark, whose cast included newcomers Gene Hackman and Dody Goodman, followed by Any Wednesday, in which he starred opposite his wife; and a summer 1964 tour of Mary, Mary. During the run of the latter production, however, Scott began to complain of feeling ill. A visit to a New York hospital revealed that the actor was suffering from a malignant brain tumor. He began radiation treatments and underwent brain surgery in July 1965, but the operation revealed that the cancer had progressed too far.
In August 1965, Scott and his wife returned to his mother’s home in Austin, Texas, and on October 3, 1965, he died there, at age 51. Several years after his death, in 1971, the Zachary Scott Theatre opened in Austin; now known as Zach Theater, the center presents Broadway and off-Broadway productions, and also offers a variety of arts-related activities, including a performing arts school and a professional theater for youth. In a recent article, Dave Steakley, artistic director for Zach Theatre, said that the center’s patrons are often unfamiliar with the actor. “People ask us all the time who he is,” Steakley said. “Part of it is because so many new people have come to Austin, but I think it has more to do with age. It is great to be out in the lobby and see a grandmother showing her grandchildren the pictures and telling them why Zachary Scott was so great.” The actor continued to be remembered by his home state more than two decades after his death when, in 1988, a chair in drama was established at the University of Texas honoring Scott and his family.
Although Zachary Scott would later bemoan the spate of villainous roles that served as the foundation and structure of his film career, it cannot be denied that when it came to sophisticated scoundrels and polished cads, Scott was one of the screen’s best. When he was able to break out of the “heavy” mold, in such films as The Southerner, and plays including The King and I and Bell, Book and Candle, the actor proved that he could offer much more. Still, in roles such as the murderous Dimitrios Makropoulos or Mildred Pierce’s despicable Monte Beragon, Scott left us with an impressive number of meaty, high-quality performances that are unforgettable.