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Who Was Zachary Scott?

Long before the days of Matthew McConaughey, Austin was home to Hollywood favorite Zachary Scott.

American-Statesman Staff

Bobbi Moore, a thirtysomething who has lived in Austin for 12 years, guessed Zachary Scott was “some old, dead mayor or something.” Michael Martin, 44, who has been here 26 years, confused him with an old, dead president.

“Zachary Scott was a Texas Ranger,” Lisa Starr, 31, says, willing but without a clue. “All of the other Texas Rangers made fun of him because he was into the arts and they were into killing Indians. He died defending the theater way back when.”

Every one of more than a dozen people coming out of Whole Foods Market on Lamar Boulevard on a recent weekday knew the Zachary Scott Theatre. Several had been there to see plays. But no one until Margie Naumann, 72, and Olive Springsten, 75, came shopping knew that Zachary Scott was no Texas Ranger.

Fifty years before Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey, Austin had Zachary Scott. Legends Jean Renoir and Luis Buñuel directed him. Joan Crawford lost her self respect to him. A dozen good guys gunned him down. In 1945, Marcy Townsley, a feature writer for the then-Austin Statesman, called him “Austin’s one contribution and perhaps Texas’ most distinguished gift to the motion picture industry.” This after he had made two movies.

“He was suave. He was handsome,” Naumann says. “He was our vintage,” Springsten says, with a naughty glance at Naumann. “We liked the way he looked, but there was always a certain amount of badness about him.”

A few years ago, administrators bowed to pressure and began referring to the theater in promotional materials and on signs out side as the Zach, artistic director Dave Steakley says. Some thought the shortened name sounded fresh. Others, Steakley says, suggested the change would distance the theater from a name that evoked the image of a second-rate movie actor.

Steakley responded by becoming the theater’s authority on Scott. He assembled what little constituted the Zachary Scott collection a few photographs, newspaper clippings and letters that had been donated to the theater. An iconoclastic collector of 1960s memorabilia, Steakley found Zachary Scott movie posters and stills came cheap.

“People ask us all the time who he is,” Steakley says. “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 lobby of the John R. Whisenhunt Arena Theatre of the Zach tells a pretty complete story of the life of Zachary Scott the movie star. There are the framed glossies. Scott with J. Carrol Naish in “The Southerner,” his best film, and a movie poster for “Treasure of Ruby Hills,” maybe his worst. And next to the “no smoking” signs, Scott holds a cigarette, the prop of his generation.

He was born Zachary Thompson Scott Jr. on Feb. 21, 1914, the son of Zachary Thompson Scott, one of the most respected surgeons in Austin, and the former Sallie Lee Masterson. Scott grew up with sisters Mary Lewis and Abby Ann at Sweetbrush, the family estate off Windsor Road. Helen Morton, 88, who performed with Scott in the early 1930s in the Austin Little Theatre, said no one who knew him doubted that he would spurn his father’s hope that he become a doctor or a lawyer, she says. Scott entered University of Texas in 1932 to become an actor.

“Oh, he was quite handsome,” says Morton, who lives in West Lake Hills. “And charming and personable. He had that grace and charm and southern manner, the whole bit. I admired him and enjoyed his performances, we all did.”

While a member of the Curtain Club, whose ranks at the time included former Gov. John Connally and later included Walter Cronkite and Eli Wallach, Scott met Elaine Anderson of Fort Worth. From 1935 until 1950, she was Mrs. Zachary Scott.

Elaine (Anderson) Steinbeck has lived in New York for more than 60 of her 85 years, (20 of those years married to Nobel prize winning writer John Steinbeck) but Texas remains in her inflection and her delivery.

“I wanted to know everything about the theater, production, set design, everything,” she says. “He was only interested in acting. We got married on his 21st birthday. I was only 20 years old.”

The Scotts toiled in the Austin Little Theatre, the forerunner of the Zach, which had been formed in 1932. In one Austin Statesman story, Mrs. Dalton Richardson, a member of the Little Theatre board, says, “He was certainly the best-dressed director the Little Theatre ever had. The girls’ hearts really fluttered when he appeared between acts in the foyer of Hogg Auditorium in his white tie and tails.”

With prospects in Austin limited the Scotts went to New York with the financial support of both their families, Elaine Steinbeck says. “When we got here we found out that 10 million other people wanted the same jobs.”

Jack Warner, one of the four Warner Brothers, spotted Scott in “Those Endearing Young Charms,” on Broadway in 1943. With Hollywood losing the likes of James Stewart, Clark Gable, Tyrone Power and dozens of others to military service during World War II, studio heads were desperate for new talent.

“Normally, it would have taken Zach years of doing bit parts before making it,” Elaine Steinbeck says. “Suddenly, they needed actors right away. Zach was anxious to go to Hollywood. I stayed in New York. I never did move out there with him.” Just eight weeks later, the Austin American, in what was common practice for the day, ran the entire text of a story written by a member of the Warner Bros. publicity staff. “Zack Scott Grows Mustache, Tests for Screen Role Under Warner Brothers Film Contract,” the headline read.

The role he tested for was Dimitrios in “The Mask of Dimitrios,” a late 1944 mystery that made Scott a star and a Holly wood archetype villain who was charming, seductive and gleefully menacing. In an Aug. 30,1944, letter that hangs on the lobby wall of the Whisenhunt, Scott wrote to Melvin Pape, the first director of the Austin Little Theatre, that he was pleased “The Mask of Dimitrios” was popular with American fighting men. He tells Pape he is about to star with Errol Flynn in “San Antonio,” “good, rip-roaring, colorful Western stuff.”

“San Antonio” got made without Scott. Warner’s instead loaned him to United Artists, where Jean Renoir, the internationally renowned director, had asked that Scott play his lead, a Texas sharecropper in “The Southerner.”

Renoir, the son of Impressionist giant Pierre Auguste Renoir, had already directed the classics “Grand Illusion” in 1938 and “Rules of the Game” in 1939 in France. “The Southerner” would be Renoir’s greatest American film. Scott’s is a performance of powerful simplicity and understatement.

“Here was this pampered young man playing a farmer who has to struggle,” Morton says. “It captured so many things. It was socially significant. He was wonderful in ‘The Southerner.’ I think it was his favorite role.”

The response of Warner Brothers to the critical success of the movie was to cast Scott again as a cad in “Mildred Pierce,” a hard boiled noir written by James M. Cain. In it, Scott married Joan Crawford but ends up sleeping with her daughter, played by Ann Blyth.

The popularity of “Mildred Pierce” cast type for Scotttux and tie, cigarette and a casual disregard for morality. Like much of Hollywood in the 1950s, Scott turned to westerns, playing the oily and the dissolute in buckskins. A last, daring attempt by Scott to turn his career failed with the disappointment that greeted “The Young One,” directed in 1961 by the great Mexican director Luis Buñuel. When Zach Scott came home, as he often did, it was to share in the closeness of an extended Texas family, according to his nephew, Tom Campbell. The Mastersons and the Scotts would get together in Amarillo “for a real hoo-ha, slapping each other on the back and all that.”

When Steakley asked Campbell, now 53 and living in Wimberley, to donate his collection of Zachary Scott artifacts for display at the Zach, including the photograph of Scott shaking the hand of Queen Elizabeth, Campbell politely but firmly said no.

“In my opinion, he was a good actor. I put him up there on the level of a Clark Gable. I don’t think he ever got the kudos for the work he did,” Campbell says. “But I don’t identify him as an actor. I never did. Of course, I was pretty young, but I recall him as a pal. He had a childish side to him. Kids just seemed to flock to him. I recall he always had time for kids.”

By the time she received a call from Zach in early 1965, Elaine Steinbeck had long since forgiven him for the divorce. The two had simply grown apart, she says, and now they were friends. Zach called her to a New York hospital. When she entered the room and saw Scott’s head had been shaved, she burst into tears.

Cancer that had started in his chest after a lifetime of smoking cigarettes had made its way through an artery and into his brain, she says.

“He said ‘I’m going home to die and I wanted to spend the day with you,’ ” she says.

A kind of watch went on from afar, the Austin papers respecting the family’s privacy at Sweetbrush, publishing brief updates on Scott’s health from time to time until he died on Oct. 3 1965. The family planned no public services and asked that no one send flowers.

“He’d still be handsome to this day,” she says. “He died too soon.” When the renamed Austin Civic Theatre sought donors to build a new stage for the theater in 1968, Scott’s sister, Mary Lewis Kleberg, stepped forward with a donation that Steakley estimated was “several hundred thousand dollars.” The Kleberg family stipulated that the theater be renamed for Zachary Scott.

“I think it was fitting,” Steakley says. “And I think it continues to be important that we make a connection between that name and what he meant to Austin and the people who continue to come to our theater.”

When the caretaker at Austin Memorial Park was asked to locate the cemetery plot for Zachary Scott, he did not recognize the name. Scott is buried beneath a headstone of pink, charcoal streaked marble, along the easternmost cemetery drive. On his right are his father, who died in 1964, and his mother, who died in 1983. On his left is his sister, Abby Ann Scott Hearon, who died in 1982.

In the frail live oak that gives the family plots precious little shade are three small wind chimes. The inscription on Scott’s headstone quotes William Blake: “He who binds to himself a joy, Does the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies, Lives in eternity’s sun rise.”

“I hope Austin will remember that he became a very good and very popular actor in Hollywood and all over the country,” says Elaine Steinbeck. “Austin should know it was Zachary Scott’s home and it should be very proud that Zach was a son of Austin and a true Texan.”

You may contact Mark Lisheron at mlisheron@statesman.com or 512-445-3663.

Film Credits

  • The Mask of Dimitrios, 1944
  • The Southerner, 1945
  • Mildred Pierce, 1945
  • The Unfaithful, 1947
  • Ruthless, 1948
  • Flamingo Road, 1949
  • Shadow on the Wall, 1950
  • Bandido, 1956
  • The Young One (La Joven), 1961

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This project is supported in part by the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin Economic Development Department.

ZACH Theatre is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit arts organization located in Austin, Texas.

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