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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.


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Best of Fels
 
December: The Other Pool Pens
December 2018

By George Fels
[Reprinted from December 1989]


Pool trivia players, attention! Who originally played “Fast Eddie” Felson?

If your knee-jerk response is Paul Newman, go to your room. The answer is Cliff Robertson, but it’s a stinky question because the vehicle wasn’t titled, “The Hustler,” and his character wasn’t named “Fast Eddie.” The thing was called “Goodbye, Johnny,” on the old Philco TV Theater, and it bore a reasonably close resemblance to “The Hustler” as it appeared in is original form, a Playboy short story.

Robertson, an Academy Award-winning actor, played his on-camera pool slightly better than King Tut, and the entire show wasn’t too much of an improvement on that. But “Goodbye, Johnny” was the first integration of pool fiction and TV that I can remember, and a brief examination of the category is well worthwhile.

What makes the little universe of pool-fiction-outside-Tevis so intriguing is that the pool is generally so awful. Your typical actor handles the cue about as comfortably as he would the Australian Tiger Snake, and the camera immediately cuts to somebody else’s hands executing the shot; the story, dialogue and casting all make the behind squirm.

One of the worst “Twilight Zone” episodes I ever saw put Jonathan Winters and Jack Klugman together in some ridiculous mess about the world’s greatest former player returning to earth from heaven to choose his successor. Both men moved and played with the grace of angry hippos.

On the other hand, one of the better pool stories I saw turned up in an unlikely place: “Dr. Kildaire,” in a two-parter starring the late Fred Astaire as an old hustler whose daughter, a nun, was suffering from leukemia. Somehow, Astaire hustled the Lord into granting him death in exchange for his daughter’s remission and life. More importantly, from our point of view, the pool was genuine. The late Harold (Red) Baker played a bit part too — and Astaire, who at one point practiced pool six hours daily at his home, reportedly insisted on shooting his own shots, with no cutaways, as a condition of his accepting the role.

Astaire was well-established as a serious actor by then, and not only played convincingly and well, but captured an aging hustler’s body language and moves so perfectly, you’d swear he had been a dancer.

Peter Falk got to play some pool, and acceptably, in both “Columbo” and the short-lived “Trials of O’Brien.” But New York insiders recall when Falk had trouble running a rack as a regular at McGirr’s. His favorite hustler was — no kidding — “Brooklyn Jimmy.” Falk was merely a struggling one-eyed actor back then, and he must have recognized the other man’s rare genius for scrapping for a living.

Some of the best pool fiction on the tube was delivered by another shot that didn’t last long, the horribly titled but fine series, “Then Came Bronson.” I remember pool being played in at least three episodes, and one of them was well worth watching. Titled “The Odyssey,” it featured the wonderful late character actor David Burns in a story about a Pacific Northwest house player whose wife annually invited the best hustlers in America to come share her husband’s birthday, to no avail. It was beautifully conceived, written, cast and produced.

Generally, the playing range of celebrities who have appeared on camera with the game runs a gamut of not just A to Z, but two or three times back and forth. Frank Sinatra, in the great “From Here to Eternity” and the hapless “Meet Danny Wilson”; Montgomery Clift in both “From Here to Eternity” and “A Place in the Sun”; James Caan, an authentic pool freak, in “Cinderella Liberty.” Even Johnny Cash and the immortal Sir Laurence Olivier, who claimed he had played snooker for years and said of his four-cushion bank shot in “Sleuth,” “It was nothing.”

Over on the print side, you’ll find some great pool fiction outside “The Hustler” and “The Color of Money.” Some years again, a well-detailed novel appeared called “Shoot It,” by Paul Tyner, about a pool-playing cop. And even if it takes a trip to the library, you should discover an author named Don Carpenter. One of his first novels, “Hard Rain Falling,” from the early ’60s, features pool prominently. Carpenter writes extremely well of 8-ball, rotation and one-pocket. And a later work, “The Class of 1944,” also includes a long short-story called “One-Pocket,” in which the author demonstrates once again that his is a poolroom habitue of the old school, with a background including the best-known rooms from San Francisco to Seattle. He even writes accurately about dead stroke.

Yet Carpenter wasn’t the author I researched the hardest to find. That honor belongs to one Riso Levi, whom many billiards historians have labeled “the best billiards writer of all time.” I anticipated a real treat in store — how much better than Byrne, Shamos and me could the guy actualy be? — and I got one, but not quite the way I expected. Riso Levi sounds exactly like those “two wild and crazy guys!” brothers that Dan Akroyd and Steve Martin used to play on “Saturday Night Live!” Anybody who can get through more than three paragraphs of Riso Levi gets a box of Snickers.

Get into the world of pool writing and see what you can find for yourself. One thing that you will find is rich fulfillment — at how so many alleged experts can know so much less than you do.

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