Reel Life: 'The Hustler'
By Jeff Merron
Special to Page 2

"The Hustler" is a bona fide classic, as revered by critics as it is by sports fans and Paul Newman devotees. It was nominated for nine Oscars and it won two, for cinematography and art direction.

The DVD just came out a few weeks ago, and it allows you to appreciate what Daniel Kraus, writing in Gadfly, calls the movie's "scummy-early-morning-and-black-coffee feel."

But it's one thing to feel realistic and another thing to be real. Is "The Hustler" for real? Read on.

The Players
In Reel Life: Paul Newman plays Eddie Felson, the hustler.

In Real Life: "Fast Eddie" Parker, who sometimes went by the last name Felsen, claimed to be the model for Newman's character. When he died in February 2001, many newspapers ran Parker's obit because of this connection. One -- the Guardian (London) -- changed its mind a month later, explaining in a lengthy article that the connection was "extremely tenuous."

In Reel Life: Jackie Gleason plays Minnesota Fats, the great pool player Fast Eddie seeks to defeat.

In Real Life: Rudolph Walter Wanderone Jr., who changed his name to Minnesota Fats after the movie came out, claimed to be the model for the movie's Minnesota Fats.

There's probably a smidgen of truth to this. Wanderone, a fat man, was a prominent hustler known at various times as "New York Fats," "Chicago Fats," "Kansas City Fats" and so on. He was also, by his own account, nicknamed "Roodle" and "Double Smart Fats" and "Triple Smart Fats." But Wanderone, unlike the soft-spoken, elegant Gleason character in the film, was a showman, a braggart and a great storyteller. Also going against Wanderone's claim is that he simply wasn't a great player -- he never finished higher than third in any tournament.

Gleason had no respect for the "real" Minnesota Fats. "I could beat him left-handed, playing pool. Left-handed!" he told Playboy in a 1986 interview. "He can't play pool. He wanted to cash in."

Wanderone's claim also irked Walter Tevis, who wrote the 1959 novel on which the film is based. This 1976 note was published in later paperback versions:

"I once saw a fat pool player with a facial tic. I once saw another pool player who was physically graceful. Both were minor hustlers, as far as I could tell. Both seemed loud and vain -- with little dignity and grace, unlike my fat pool player. After "The Hustler" was published, one of them claimed to 'be' Minnesota Fats.

"This is ridiculous. I made up Minnesota Fats -- name and all -- as surely as Disney made up Donald Duck.

"I made up Fast Eddie, too. Sarah might, in a way, be me; but that was in another country, and besides the wench is dead."

In Reel Life: Fats is an elegant dresser who wears a red carnation in his lapel.

In Real Life: This is an instance where Gleason fit the part perfectly. Cary Grant called him the most stylish man in show biz. "If you're dressed nicely, you're obviously a man of some substance," Gleason said. "You have some taste. People who dress well exude confidence. I'd rather associate with someone neat and clean, someone who looks good."

The red carnation was a Gleason signature style. "That came from Brooklyn," said Gleason. "On Mother's Day there, if your mother was alive, you wore a pink carnation; if she had passed away, you wore a white one. I thought it looked real spiffy. But wearing a pink one regularly, I thought, would have been a little effeminate. And white certainly would be funereal. But red -- that comes through."

In Reel Life: Fast Eddie drinks "J.T.S. Brown." In one of the movie's snappy exchanges between Fats and Eddie, Fats says, "Preach! Go down and get me some White Tavern whiskey, a glass and some ice." Then Eddie says, "Preacher! Go on down and get me some bourbon. J. T. S. Brown. No ice, no glass."

In Real Life: J.T.S. Brown bourbon is still produced by Brown-Forman Corp., which started making bourbon in Kentucky in 1870. Brown-Forman is now a huge wine and liquor conglomerate.

In Reel Life: Fast Eddie meets Sarah Parker (Piper Laurie), an alcoholic who is, to put it directly, weird. She walks with a limp and doesn't have a job, though she claims to go to college two days a week.

In Real Life: Piper Laurie (real name: Rosetta Jacobs) was signed to a studio contract at age 17. In "Louisa," her first film, she co-starred with Ronald Reagan, who was between marriages, and quite likely had an affair with him. (Reagan "was a very special friend," she later said.) Between that debut in 1950 and the mid-'50s, she played many roles that she found too lightweight, and she got released from her studio contract. She was nominated for an Oscar for "The Hustler," but it was the last film she acted in for 15 years, by personal choice.

"She was very much on her own wavelength, and an unusual wavelength it was," says Stefan Gierasch (who played Preacher) in his DVD commentary. "It fit the part very well. She did something very unusual. The dressing rooms [on the Fox Studio set in New York] were fairly small, like cells. It was an old building. She went on to furnish that dressing room as if she was going to live in it for the rest of her life. She had it fully furnished, with pictures, and I think she would stay over. My impression was that she would actually sleep there."

In Laurie's next film, she played Sissy Spacek's mother in the 1976 horror flick, "Carrie," and she was again nominated for an Oscar. She was nominated for a third Oscar for her role as Mrs. Norman in 1986's "Children of a Lesser God."

Her Hollywood reputation hasn't changed much. She appeared in "Twin Peaks" as both Catherine Martell and -- unbeknownst to almost everyone at the time, including other cast members -- Japanese businessman Fuji Yamaguchi. "There's a mystique about her," said "Twin Peaks" director David Lynch. "She has a kind of a wild streak that's interesting, because it could become dangerous."

In Reel Life: Eddie watches Fats play. "Boy, he is great!" he says. "Jeez, that old fat man. Look at the way he moves. Like a dancer."

In Real Life: Gleason didn1t mind being called fat, he told Playboy. "Fat jokes have been a staple in your career. Have they ever stung?" asked writer Bill Zehme. "Never, never. If they had bothered me, I would have lost weight. And even when I weighed 260, I was doing 88s and somersaults. I could always move."

Fats and Eddie play quickly, which, says world artistic champion Mike Massey in his DVD commentary, is the way the good straight pool players do it. Massey noted, for example, that Willie Mosconi -- often considered the best pool player ever -- played fast, because pool is a game where rhythm is important.

In Reel Life: Both Eddie and Fats smoke constantly.

In Real Life: Newman was a smoker, recalls Jonathan Carroll, the son of co-scriptwriter Sidney Carroll: "My first vision of Newman was rehearsing how a drunk would take a cigarette out of a pack and light it. He was rehearsing with his brand, the turquoise Salem, but later they were replaced by some hard guy unfiltered brand like Pall Mall or Lucky Strikes."

The Places
In Reel Life: The big matches between Eddie and Fats are played at Ames Billiards.

In Real Life: In the novel upon which the film is based, they play at "Bennington's," which is a fictional version of the great pool hall, Bensinger's Billiard Academy, which was in downtown Chicago. Since the setting was changed to New York for the film, Ames, which could be considered the Manhattan equivalent of Bensinger's, was used.

Most of the other sets were also real places in or around New York, where the film was shot. Although Ames (and most other pool halls) were in decline by the 1960s, it was big in its day.

In his DVD commentary, Newman recalled preparing for the part. "Ames in New York was on 47th Street on the second floor, just off Broadway. Before we started shooting, I went up to just kind of case the place. By that time I had done a dozen films or something, and I had a cap on and some dark glasses, and I was just watching what was going on, and this young kid came up and said, 'How would you like to shoot a little pool?' At that time I hadn't even had a stick in my hand and I said, 'Nah, I'm just looking.' And he came back in about 10 minutes, and he said 'C'mon, why don't we just play for a couple of bucks, it's no big deal.' And I said no. And he came back again and said, 'I don't see why you're just standing around here, let's shoot some pool.' " Newman told the kid he didn't shoot pool. Then he went home and started practicing.

In Reel Life: Neither Ames Billiards, nor any of the other poolrooms Eddie visits, for that matter, are very crowded. The setting is contemporary -- this is supposed to be pool, circa 1960 or so.

In Real Life: "The Hustler" more accurately captures the pool scene of the 1930s than that of 1960.

Pool was very popular from the turn of the century until World War II. According to one estimate, in the late 1920s there were about 40,000 pool halls in the U.S. But after the war, the game went into a steep, rapid decline, with many poolrooms closing. "By the end of the 1950s, it looked as though the game might pass into oblivion," writes pool historian Mike Shamos.

"The Hustler" created a resurgence in the game in the 1960s, and its sequel -- "The Color of Money," -- which came out in 1986, spiked another pool revival.

In Reel Life: A faded poster on the wall of Ames promotes an exhibition by Willie Mosconi.

In Real Life: Mosconi, the film's technical advisor (he also has a small, uncredited role as "Willie," who holds onto the stakes), was famous well before "The Hustler" came out. He won the world championship 15 times in the 1940s and '50s, and set a record by running 526 consecutive balls in a 1954 exhibition (he quit before he missed).

In its obituary of Mosconi, the New York Times said, "Mr. Mosconi was able to combine his great talents with movie-star good looks and tasteful attire. He was able to almost single-handedly establish billiards as a reputable pastime in the minds of the general public. His efforts to disassociate billiards from the images of smoky basements, bars and parlors crawling with drunks and hustlers was the reason for his feuds over the years with his chief nemesis, Minnesota Fats."

When Mosconi and Fats finally faced each other, in a live "Wide World of Sports" match, Mosconi easily won.

If you want to catch more of Mosconi after you've seen him collect the money in "The Hustler," you can see him in George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone" video.

Mosconi died of a heart attack in 1993, at 80.

In Reel Life: In the poolrooms, there are signs saying "No Masse Shots."

In Real Life: Masse shots are banned because they are shots in which a player shoots almost straight down on a ball. Masse shots, if done improperly, can easily damage a table. In "The Hustler," though, a masse shot is attempted and made in two separate games. It's the identical shot, filmed from two different angles.

The Pool
In Reel Life: Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats play for 40 hours straight in their first match, and pull off some remarkable shots.

In Real Life: Mosconi, who many pool experts agree was the best pool player of his time, taught Newman how to play, set up the shots that ended up in the film, and took at least one (and probably more) of the shots.

Newman said to prepare for the movie he put a pool table in his dining room and played with Mosconi. He also put on a disguise and motorcycled over to a girls high school to practice. By the time filming began, Newman was a very good player, and took many of his own shots.

Gleason, by all accounts, was an excellent player before he got the part, and he didn't mind telling everyone about it. To shut him up, his friend, the legendary Toots Shor, set up a match between Mosconi and Gleason, without revealing Mosconi's identity. Of course, Mosconi beat Gleason in the easy, straightforward hustle. But Gleason ended up winning, as Mosconi recommended him to director Robert Rossen for the part of Fats. "He was all right," said Mosconi of Gleason. "I mean, he beat all those suckers who hung around Toots Shor's."

In Reel Life: Many of the shots appear unlikely at best, impossible at worst.

In Real Life: According to Massey, the pool playing sequences are what you'd see in exhibitions -- so many combinations and carom shots wouldn't be attempted in competition. During the first match with Fats, Eddie gets on a roll, and one of the shots he makes is illegal -- his stick goes through the cue ball and hits the 13 ball, which pockets the two.

In Reel Life: Fast Eddie, during his first match against Fats, says, "You know, I gotta hunch, fat man. I got a hunch it's me from here on in ... One ball, corner pocket. I mean, that ever happen to you? When all of a sudden you feel like you can't miss? I dreamed about this game, fat man. I dreamed about this game every night on the road ... five ball ... You know, this is my table, man. I own it.

In Real Life: Way before highly-paid psychologists were pushing their expertise on athletes, Fast Eddie had been using visualization techniques. He also, well before it was known to exist, described "the zone."

In Reel Life: Eddie, Sarah and Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) go to Louisville during Derby week, where Bert sets up a big-money match against a wealthy Kentucky man, James Findley. When they get to Gordon's house, where they're playing, Eddie takes the cover off the table, and says to Findley, "I thought you said pool." Findley replies, 3" don1t play pool, Mr. Felson. I play billiards."

In Real Life: Billiards and pool are often used synonymously, but they're not the same game. Basic billiards uses a table with no pockets, and involves only three balls, heavier than those used in pool -- a plain white ball, a "spot" white and a red ball. Each player gets his own cue ball -- either the white or the spot white. Points are scored by hitting the two other balls with your cue ball. Pool games are a type of billiards played, usually, on a table with six pockets with 15 balls and the cue ball.

In Reel Life: Fast Eddie gets his thumbs broken after hustling another hustler at Arthur's Pool Hall, a seedy, port-side poolroom at Pier 88.

In Real Life: "Things like that really happen. I've had guns pulled on me," says Massey in his DVD commentary. Fast Eddie Parker said he once had his finger broken, after, instead of playing an opponent along, he rushed: "Well, his two stake horses -- the guys putting up his money -- quit on him.

That's when he had two of his buddies take me behind a partition, and they broke my right forefinger. They knew what they were doing. That's the finger that guides your stroke."

In Reel Life: Clearly there's a lot of strategy going on when Fats and Eddie play, and while it's easy to appreciate most of the shots, it's more difficult for the layman to understand what the players are thinking.

In Real Life: The great pool players think differently than everyone -- including those who know pool but have lesser talent. Pool is "a cross between chess and golf," Harry Sims, then the U.S. three-cushion billiard champ, said in 1984. "It takes a three-dimensional mind: You have to make the shot, get into a position to make another shot, and make sure that if you miss, you don't leave your opponent with an easy shot."



Jeff Merron Archive

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