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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
 
August: TV
August 2023

By George Fels
[Reprinted from January 2002]
A few weeks ago, some of us who post regularly on the bulletin board of this magazine’s website were talking about pool as portrayed on television. Most of those efforts, of course, are little short of execrable; actors get hired who appear never to have held a cue before, the camera cuts away to balls on the table, or maybe hand shots, and the stories, such as they are, proceed. Jack Albertson and the late Phil Leeds were both proficient enough to play a hustler convincingly, and Fred Astaire — a bona fide pool nut who was known to practice up to six hours a day at home — was very good in the same role on a two-part “Dr. Kildare.” But the game is almost always seen, in its customary cliched way, as a diversion of lowlifes, and viewing it in that mode on television is enough to make any true pool lover’s fanny squirm.

So it was with pedantic pride that I reminded my fellow posters of the peculiar and short-lived show called “Then Came Bronson,” on which pool was played in at least three installments. But my personal favorite, which I had not seen in at least 30 years, was an episode called “The 99-Mile Circle.” Pool only appears in one scene of the show and has nothing to do with the basic story line. Still, in nearly 50 years around the game, and a rare (and basically worthless) memory of films and television shows in which pool has appeared, I have ever enjoyed seeing it more, with the notable exception of “The Hustler.” Recapturing it surely appeared to be a hopeless quest; who keeps tapes of 30-year-old TV shows that few watched in the first place?

Ah, but never underestimate the power of the internet. Not long after my post, I received a helpful email which point out that there was indeed a source for tapes of older TV shows. I followed up, and soon, for the princely sum of $10 plus $3.50 shipping and handling, “The 99-Mile Circle” was my very own.

The title character was played by an actor named Michael Parks, one of a great many members who attempted to rechannel James Dean. Tim Bronson was a disgruntled journalist who quit his job to take off and see the country via motorcycle; the Chicago Tribune’s noted syndicated columnist and author Bob Greene was a fan of the show and has frequently referred to its opening scene in which a motorist tells Bronson, “I wish I was you,” and Bronson replies, “Well, hang in there.”

In “The 99-Mile Circle,” Bronson befriends a retired New York furrier in the Pacific Northwest, and the two happen upon a restaurant where the owner is a pool player. Each year on his birthday, his wife would invite America’s top players to the restaurant to play her husband a “birthday game,” and of course none of them ever responds. (“Then Came Bronson,” you see, was not entirely out of touch with reality.) Thus, Bronson and his new pal are mistaken for pool players. The furrier attempts to explain that he has never played in his life, but the mother and daughter are convinced that no hustler wants you to know how good he is; Bronson, having had the daughter explain the scene to him, is willing to play along. The furrier somehow manages to lag for the break but loses; the owner breaks and runs the table. Then comes Bronson, with a fairly ordinary break that makes no balls; the owner runs the table again. And that’s it.

Is it good pool? Frankly, no. The actor playing the restaurant owner cannot play at all, thus we get the usual familiar cutaways, and you can’t even tell what game they’re playing because it’s not the 8 or 9 ball that goes in last. And to be equally candid, I had forgotten that pool was just one scene and barely part of the storyline at all. So, what was it that I remembered so fondly?

It was the editing and the actress playing the owner’s wife. After practically every ball her husband sinks, there are insert shots of her beaming with pride, joy and love, all of which seem to grow with each shot. Why should such a scene affect me that deeply? Because you cannot name the dollar figure that I would have balked at paying to have that kind of relationship between pool and the woman I married.

Years before we were wed, Dale not only correctly recognized my passion for pool but perceived it as a very serious threat. I hear, “You can have pool, or you can have me,” many, many times during our courtship; somehow, I always managed to pour oil on those troubled waters. Five years into the marriage, which was going unevenly anyhow, I heard that ultimatum one more time, and without losing a beat, snapped, “I choose pool. Now it’s your move.” She immediately burst into tears, and I never heard that line out of her again.

The thing is, the marriage did improve, and exponentially; I will never stop being grateful that she didn’t take me up on my declaration. Once our relationship was where it should have been all along, she accepted a table in our home; when we became parents, she enjoyed playing with each of our sons in turn. I had her with me for 15 days short of 32 years before I lost her. Watching the pool scene from “The 99-Mile Circle,” it was my turn to burst into tears, which I most certainly did.

I doubt I’ve ever spent a sawbuck more happily in my entire life.

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