Tim Purtell on the ''Patton'' actor's legendary refusal to accept his Best Actor nomination, and win, for the film

For Hollywood, the controversy was as unsettling as an earthquake. The first, tremors had been felt in February, when George C. Scott informed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences via telegram that he would reject a nomination as Best Actor for his portrayal of Gen. George S. Patton in Patton. Though he had tried before to withdraw from an Oscar race-for a Best Supporting Actor nod for 1960’s The Hustler — this time the 43-year-old actor declared that he would simply not accept.

On Oscar night, April 15, the quake hit. As presenter Goldie Hawn gasped, ”Oh, my God, the winner is George C. Scott!” the honoree was asleep at his New York State farm with his then-wife, actress Colleen Dewhurst, and sons — thus becoming the first actor to reject the coveted award.

Scott had won high praise for 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder and 1964’s Dr. Strangelove before playing the crusty World War II general. The perfectionist Scott read and reread 13 Patton biographies, wore a special set of dental caps, and battled producer Frank McCarthy over how to portray ”Old Blood and Guts.” It was worth the angst. Scott’s performance was considered an Oscar shoo-in-until the Academy got his telegram and heard his later remarks, ascribing his refusal to a dislike of the voting process and of the very idea of competition.

Hollywood quickly took sides, with the old guard, such as Gregory Peck and Airport producer Ross Hunter, critical of Scott’s defiant gesture, and young upstarts, like fellow nominee Ryan O’Neal (Love Story), backing him. The debate raged for weeks: Columnists explored the ”crisis,” TIME enshrined the brouhaha on its cover, and 60 Minutes let him sound off two days before the Oscar broadcast.

And then it was over. On the set of The Hospital the day after the ceremony, Scott said he had ”no feeling about it one way or another.” The Academy relaxed-until 1973, when The Godfather‘s Marlon Brando one-upped Scott by sending Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse his award for him.

Currently in Off Broadway’s Wrong Turn at Lungfish, Scott, now 65 and married to actress Trish Van Devere, reprised the role of Patton in a 1986 TV movie (and will star in Curacao on Showtime in June). Did Scott regret the debacle? He’s not talking now, but in 1974 he said, ”I have to do what is valuable to me: calling my soul my own.”