Tips & shafts
By George Fels
Consulting Editor George Fels has been writing for Billiards Digest since 1980, and his "Tips & Shafts" column is usually our readers' first stop when they crack open the magazine. For better or worse, pool has been his only mistress for 40-plus years.
Best of Fels
November: Jelly Roles
IF INDEED there’s a racket as tough as playing pool for a living, acting would be a serious candidate. Actually, both are involved simultaneously if you’re going to be any kind of hustler at all, but that’s not the point here. The star of the super current ad campaign for Dos Equis beer (who is not Latino in the least; in fact, he’s Jewish) admitted, in a recent interview, that the 6-year-old series is quite easily the greatest thing that’s ever happened to him. How many pool players do you know who’d be willing to wait till age 67 for a decent score?
“Where does he come up with this stuff?” is a query I’ve been flattered to hear over the last three decades-plus. Well, the source of this month’s tome is about as close to right-under-my-nose as I’m likely to get; it’s at the foot of the stairs to my home room, Chris’s Billiards (can a poolroom ever be truly complete without stairs, up or down?). There you’ll find some dozens of still photos from TV and the movies of actors (and actresses) who have played pool, or at least held a cue, on-camera. The collection is intriguing both for whom it includes and those it does not.
Burt Reynolds is there (from “Sharky”), carrying the Native American banner in the noble manner of Leil Gay and Cliff Joyner. So is Clint Eastwood, in a scene from “The Enforcer,” arguably the weakest of his Dirty Harry Callahan films. Jane Fonda, even without the luxuries of sound and motion, appears to be making a complete fool of herself at the table in something called “Steelyard Blues.” Walter Matthau, a long-ago alum of New York’s famous room McGirr’s, is represented, although without Jack Lemmon in a scene from “The Odd Couple” (Lemmon was considered to be a bona fide intermediate player). Gleason and Newman are here, of course, in their familiar side-by-side lag for the opening break. So are Omar Sharif and the late James Coburn, from the execrable “Baltimore Bullet.” Another unique pairing are Vanessa Redgrave (as “Agatha”) being coached by, of all actors, Dustin Hoffman, one of Hollywood’s true pool freaks. And, naturally enough, Peter Sellers appears as bumbling Inspector Closeau and his rainbow-shaped cue in the hilarious “A Shot in the Dark.”
One of the faces I was happiest to see in the montage was Fred Astaire, who never played pool in the movies but did on TV (indeed, he’s pictured with his co-star Richard Chamberlain, the title figure in “Dr. Kildare”). Astaire’s passion for pool is not easily perceived; he was known to practice 14.1 in his basement for up to six hours a day. His favorite players, who qualified as his friends as well, were Hall of Famers Dan DiLiberto and Ed Kelly, both of whom frequently escorted him to watch big-money matches. At one such encounter, a railbird looking for a side bet sauntered up to Astaire and asked him whom he liked. “Well,” said the erudite dancer, who would not bet that fat meat was greasy, “They both seem to be very fine gentlemen, and I like them both very much.”
The “Dr. Kildare” episode in which Astaire appeared was a two-part story called “Fathers and Daughters”; he portrayed an aging hustler whose daughter was a leukemia-stricken nun. The show was largely well removed from memorable, except for a line pertaining to his cue case: “Every time my wife sees it, it gives her a rash.” In the end, his character “hustles” the Lord into exchanging his daughter’s life for his own. Astaire reportedly insisted on playing all his own pool on-camera — no cutaway hand shots — as a condition of his only known TV dramatic appearance. Well-known California player Harold “Red” Baker served as the opponent.
But I wish the collection had included Lord Laurence Olivier, who made his own three-rail bank shot playing snooker in “Sleuth.” Or Peter Falk, a McGirr’s buddy to both Matthau and Gleason in their scuffling days; he hit shots in both “Columbo” and his short-lived series “The Trials of O’Brien.” No actor ever loved to play pool more, and it was said you could call him at 3 a.m. for a game and he’d come running. Another actor/regular in that room was Lionel Stander, said to be an expert player, best known for portraying the chauffeur on the old “Hart to Hart” TV series. Tony Curtis’s only pool scene was in “Six Bridges To Cross,” but the alleged actor was into the game deeply enough that he was reportedly heartbroken at not landing the title role of “The Hustler.” Frank Sinatra made a lone ball in the totally forgettable “Meet Danny Wilson,” but somehow he was Gleason’s choice to play the same role. Jerry Orbach, probably show business’ best-known player, shot pool three times that I can think of on his famous “Law & Order” TV show, in addition to never missing a New York pool celebrity fundraising event; a fellow TV actor, Jason Gedrick (“EZ Streets” and, currently, “Dexter”), has gone one step further by staging his own pool celebrity fund-raisers in Hollywood for kids with AIDS. James Caan (Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather”) looked pretty good hitting a few balls in “Cinderella Liberty.” The late Montgomery Clift sure looked as though he knew what he was doing in both “A Place in the Sun” and “From Here To Eternity.” And Broadway actor Jack Albertson (“The Subject Was Roses”) was easily the best actor I’ve ever seen at portraying an expert pool player, which he did on both “Gunsmoke” and the old Raymond Burr lawyer show “Ironside,” better even than Gleason.
Still, it’s worth noting that of all these opuses, only “The Hustler” and Fred Astaire’s “Dr. Kildare” show ever took the game seriously. And the scenes from both TV and the movies which have included the game merely as a prop for lowlifes are far, far too numerous to mention. What a tragedy.