By George Fels
[Reprinted from June 1986]
The only worthwhile quote in the entire history of the society figure and alleged artist Andy Warhol is his generous point that everybody is entitled to 15 minutes of fame. Coinciding with the filming of “The Color of Money” here in Chicago, there has been a frantic outpour of the non-famous, getting their timepieces in working order.
They come from far and near: “Professor” Grady Mathews and his buddy, John Barline from Detroit; David Howard from Florida; Paul Brienza, with his apparent advantage of movie-star looks, all the way from California; authentic actors from Chicago and neighboring states; and, of course, an ample cross-section of Chicago’s best players.
As is usually the case, most went home empty, to resume lives against normal clocks. The auditions themselves were a farce. You got to play exactly one rack of multi-handed 9-ball; some waited hours for that privilege, and as it turned out, how you played made virtually no difference, because director Martin Scorsese was searching only for “a look.” Speaking roles went quickly, with Keith McCready getting the juiciest (he has been ingeniously cast as a hotshot punk). Some of the severely thinned ranks were still willing to scrap for scraps, and I was among them. But this is a tale of one who persevered and endured.
Willie Mosconi has recalled how, in the early 1930s, it was not uncommon for his exhibitions to outdraw the Chicago Bears games. If the two sports were still anywhere near equal, pool would have, in Chicago’s matchless Fred Bentivegna, a suitable answer to QB Jim McMahon.
I met Bengivegna, “The Beard,” nearly 25 years ago, when Bensinger’s moved from downtown Chicago to the city’s north side. The first thing he ever said to me was, “Play some banks?” and I knew at once this was no ordinary mortal. No white man had ever asked me that before.
Freddy is originally from Bridgeport, the same Chicago neighborhood that produced the late Mayor Richard J. Daley and generations of pols before him. It’s respectable but tough turf. Freddy’s banking skills made him an early cult legend in Bridgeport; the area’s only action table, except for the bars, was in a social club wherein Fred conquered all. The corner hole on the table was just that — a hole, with no pocket — and the club put a metal ashtray underneath to catch the balls. Some of the finest players in town had fallen to Fritz on that box by the time he was 18.
So great was Fred’s devotion to bank pool back then that he could scarcely make any other kind of shot. The only time you were in trouble playing him 9-ball or straight pool was when you left him an open path to a rail, and he did not figure to run too many balls doing that. We took up one-pocket about the same time, and what a wonderful fellow apprentice he was for a few years. I was Christmas’ Little Drummer Boy and Freddy B. was my present and my drum at the same time.
Yet, by the early ’70s, Fred had not only caught up to me, but left me considerably in his wake. As he was taking his game to the tournament level, he seemed to become more and more comfortable with the attention paid him, too. He and his pal, Jim “Peaches” Rochford, are probably the best storytellers on the Chicago pool scene in the last 30 years, with excellent eyes for detail, ears for inflection and near-professional timing.
So, by the time Fred tracked down the casting director for “The Hustler” sequel, he was quite ready to take over the entire film. They liked the way he read well enough; and as a bonus he rewrote their dialogue on the spot and prepared to consult, light, case, produce, direct and edit, as well. He immediately began rehearsing various awards acceptance speeches.
As the auditions approached, I interrupted every gambling conversation I heard to offer the best bet of 1986. Freddy’s pants normally hang perilously at the refrigerator repairman level, and I told everybody to go down heavy that at 2 p.m. on January 3 (the prescribed time and date for the audition), Fred’s butt would not be visible in the slightest. And he didn’t let me down. As he lounged about in designer jeans and a professionally trimmed beard, my alter ego, Jack Gunner, got off the line of the day. “Freddy,” he shouted across the room, “I bet a hundred the crack wouldn’t show. I took it down!”
Almost everybody left those awful auditions broken-hearted. Brienza flew in from Sacremento on his own dime, and even hired a limo, so he could get a 20-second chance. Freddy got turned down too.
But some men just won’t stay down. Freddy captured the ear of technical adviser Mike Sigel and landed one more interview with director Scorsese. “Martin,” Fred reports he said. “Suppose they had a film festival of Italian directors from the Lower East Side, and you weren’t included.”
“It’s that bad, Fred?”
“It’s that bad, Martin.”
Another version of the same scene has Fred on both knees; but no matter, in he went, an extra in a bar scene. He is very proud of having improvised a look at a woman’s buns as he walks past. As the great acting teacher Stanislavsky said, there are no small parts. You should catch this one if you want to see a real live charismatic pool player doing what a real pool player would do, Tossed in with a tepid storyline and a lack of true conflicts such as existed in its marvelous predecessor, this may be one of the brightest highlights “The Color of Money” has to offer.