Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Late Scott Wilson – This Time It’s Real

That's Robert Blake at left, Scott on the right

Scott Wilson  is dead. Admittedly, it’s hardly the first time he has died. In 1967, he was hanged in the courtyard of the Kansas State Penitentiary for having committed multiple brutal murders. In 2003 he suffered a different fate, at the hands of Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos. And he was unlucky enough to get fatally mixed up with zombies in TV’s The Walking Dead. Wilson was of course an actor who emerged unscathed from all of his dealings with mortality in films like Monster and In Cold Blood. Now, alas, he has succumbed to leukemia for real, at age 76.

I met Scott Wilson when I was researching the films of 1967. I was thrilled to speak with him, because he’d appeared in two of the best, In the Heat of the Night (he played fugitive Harvey Oberst, who is cleared of a murder rap by Sidney Poitier’s detective Tibbs) and In Cold Blood. I think he was flattered to have the start of his career examined so closely. We sat in the dim, cozy living room of his West Hollywood duplex, sipping tea and munching cookies graciously served by his wife Heavenly, a lovely woman who fully measured up to her challenging name. As my tape recorder slowly turned, Scott reminisced about landing the role of Harvey, who starts out as a racist but ends up becoming a true believer in Mister Tibbs’ smarts.

It helped that he was a Southerner by birth, from Atlanta. When he discovered acting as a young man, he spent five years learning every aspect of the craft, never actually expecting to earn a living on stage or screen. Auditioning for the role of Harvey, he knew he’d have to do a lot of cross-country running: his character has committed a robbery and is fleeing through the Mississippi countryside to escape the long arm of the law.  Fortunately, he was then earning his keep as a valet parker, sprinting up Hollywood hills to retrieve the cars of restaurant patrons, and so he could handle the physical challenges of his part with ease.

Thanks to Poitier and Quincy Jones, Scott was encouraged to try out for the leading role of a feckless killer in the screen version of Truman Capote’s true-crime thriller, In Cold Blood. He physically resembled the real Dick Hickock (who committed the killings along with Perry Smith), and he possessed a hearty laugh that bubbled out of him at unexpected moments, lending an eerie quality to the most mundane conversations. I was spooked by that laugh, even in his comfortable living room, especially when he played me an audition tape (from the old stage chiller, Night Must Fall) that he used to nab the Hickock role.

Columbia Pictures originally wanted major stars to play the two young killers. But Scott explained that director Richard Brooks insisted on unknowns “so there would be nothing to blemish the audience’s reaction to the killers; they could identify with them as killers instead of actors.” This helped catapult a screen novice into a leading role, but it also had its downside: Brooks made little attempt to tout his unknowns, Scott and Robert Blake, as actors. Result: they missed out on award recognition they richly deserved. 

Still, Scott wasn’t in it for the accolades. He told me, “I didn’t aspire to walk the red carpets. I didn’t aspire to the accouterments of being an actor. It’s what surrounds being an actor. Once I found acting, I said, this is what I want to do. I was really never interested in being a star.”

Hail, and farewell.

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