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The most memorable hamburger I ever had wasn’t called a hamburger. It was called “chopped steak,” which, I’ve since learned, is what upscale steak houses call a plate of ground beef. “Hamburger” sounds too humble. “Chopped steak,” on the other hand, sounds like something you’d pay $25 for.

I tucked into a mountain of glistening, medium-rare “chopped steak” back in 1991 at Gallagher’s Steak House on West 52nd Street in New York City. The meat was so tender, so delicious, it would have been a culinary crime to douse it with mustard or ketchup. A simple side salad of beefsteak tomatoes and raw onion was the ideal accompaniment.

As good as my lunch was that day, I remember it mainly because of my companion.

I was eating with George C. Scott. He was starring in a revival of Paul Osborne’s 1938 play On Borrowed Time at Circle-in-the-Square across the street. I’d been assigned to interview him for TheaterWeek magazine, and I was nervous as hell. I’d read up on Scott and discovered that, when provoked, he had a tendency to punch people.

“Wear your crash helmet,” his press agent told me, chuckling. He warned me against bringing up two subjects—the Oscars, which Scott turned down twice (The Hustler in 1961, Patton in 1971), and Ava Gardner, whose recently published memoir contained a harrowing description of Scott terrorizing her after she broke off an affair they had on the set of The Bible.

Scott chose Gallagher’s, in business since 1927, because it had been one of his haunts in the ’60s and ’70s. He could have a drink (well, drinks) there with an eclectic mix of celebs—Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford were regulars.

I arrived early and found Scott already there, ensconced in a corner table and bantering with the waiters. He wore a safari jacket and a raffish tweed hat. He was large but not intimidating. His bushy white beard and red bulbous nose made him look like Santa Claus. He greeted me warmly, and I thought, “Maybe I won’t need that crash helmet, after all.”

Glancing at the menu, he said, “A light lunch today, I think.” Then he ordered a “chop” that was twice the size of the plate. He told me he’d cut back on the drinking, limiting himself to two small glasses of beer at lunch.

His drinking was legendary. Many years later, the director Mike Nichols told me Scott kept a stash of booze in his trailer on movie sets. “You knew George was done for the day when he went into his trailer and it started rocking,” Nichols said.

But the angry, pugilistic George C. Scott of the gossip columns was nowhere to be found that day at Gallagher’s.

“I think you’ve mellowed,” I ventured.

He laughed and leaned toward my tape recorder: “I’m going to say this just once. I have always been mellow—from the very beginning. Mellow as a cello. They just never knew it. The Frankenstein monster they created—I had nothing to do with it. I fell into their coils or their toils, whatever the hell it is…moils, and I woke up one day and realized that I was some sort of gargoyle. It took me 35 years to live it down.”

We had a jolly lunch and by the end I was so relaxed, I dared to bring up the subject of awards. (I steered clear of Ava Gardner, however.) If he got a Tony nomination, would he accept it? I asked.

A hint of menace flashed in his eyes, and I got ready to dive under the table. But then he put a hand on my shoulder, smiled and said, “We’ll see, my boy, we’ll see.”

I’m a regular at Gallagher’s now myself. It’s changed owners over the years, but the tender, delicious chopped steak is still on the menu. Whenever I order it, I think of George C. Scott, a volcanic actor who happened to be, the day I met him, “mellow as a cello.”

Contributing editor Michael Riedel is theater columnist for the New York Post and a frequent Sarasota visitor.

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