1. 'The Hustler' was based on a 1959 novel by Walter Tevis. It was the first of six novels he wrote, including 'The Man Who Fell to Earth,' which would eventually become a celebrated 1976 cult sci-fi hit starring David Bowie.
2. Director/co-screenwriter Robert Rossen had been a pool hustler himself in his youth. He'd enjoyed increasing success in Hollywood, culminating with his work on the 1949 Best Picture Oscar Winner 'All the King's Men.' But then he was blacklisted for pleading the Fifth Amendment when asked about his Communist past by the House Un-American Activities Committee. After two years without work, he relented, testified again, acknowledged having been a party member, and named 57 other alleged onetime Communists. He was taken off the blacklist, but his career had failed to reach its earlier heights. Like Fast Eddie Felson, he was in need of redemption when he discovered Tevis' novel and adapted it into a screenplay with TV writer Sidney Carroll.
3. Newman had been having a hit-and-miss career, from his disastrous debut in 'The Silver Chalice' (1954) to his Oscar-nominated turn in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' (1958). He felt he had yet to find that career-defining role. The 'Hustler' filmmakers had been interested in him for the role of Fast Eddie Felson, but he was supposed to re-team with 'Cat' co-star Elizabeth Taylor in 'Two for the Seesaw.' When her 'Cleopatra' shoot ran long and forced her to drop out of the project, he became available to make 'The Hustler.'
4. When the filmmakers hired Newman, they unceremoniously dumped their already-cast leading man, Bobby Darin. Darin's agent claimed no one ever bothered to tell the star he'd been replaced; he reportedly found out from a fan while attending a charity horse race.
5. Jackie Gleason was already a successful TV comic (famous for Ralph Kramden of 'The Honeymooners' and other frequent sketch characters), but his movie career had never taken off, and he hadn't proved himself as a serious dramatic actor. The role of the confident, graceful, streetwise Minnesota Fats seemed tailor-made for Gleason, who was an accomplished pool player and is seen in the film making his own pool shots.
6. George C. Scott had earned acclaim and an Oscar nomination as the prosecutor in 1959's 'Anatomy of a Murder,' but he was still better known as a stage actor. 'The Hustler,' in which he was cast as amoral gambler Bert, was only his third movie.
7. Piper Laurie was tired of the ingenue roles she'd been playing for a decade, thanks in part to ridiculous studio publicity that claimed she maintained her luminous skin by bathing in milk and eating rose petals. She was so eager for something meatier that she jumped at the chance to be in the film after having read just 40 pages of the screenplay, before her character (the emotionally and physically crippled Sarah, who becomes Eddie's wary love interest) even shows up.
8. Others reportedly considered for Fast Eddie were Cliff Robertson and Jack Lemmon (who once said he liked to play pool during down time on movie sets to keep his emotional level high). Kim Novak claims she turned down the role of Sarah.
9. The realism of the film came in large measure from technical adviser Willie Mosconi, an established pool champ who became Paul Newman's pool coach and who has a brief cameo as a stakeholder in an early scene. He had suggested Frank Sinatra for the lead.
10. Newman had never picked up a pool cue before taking the role in 'The Hustler,' but his Method approach paid off. From Willie Mosconi, he learned how not just to shoot pool but also how to walk, talk, and circle the table like a shark. He practiced for hours at a table at a New York girls' high school and at a table he installed in his own house. Still, for the trickiest pool shots Fast Eddie had to make, it's Mosconi's hands you see in close-up.
11. The film was shot almost entirely on location in New York City - even the scenes that take place in Louisville, Kentucky. For the sequence at the bus depot, the filmmakers used the real Greyhound bus depot but built their own dining area that was so realistic that Greyhound patrons would sit at tables and linger in vain, expecting to be waited on.
12. In the Kentucky Derby sequence, there's an announcement of a horse named Stroke of Luck. That was a nod to an alternate title for the movie that the studio had considered; apparently, even then, the word "hustler" already had a suggestion of prostitution.
13. Like his character, pool newbie Newman got cocky enough to challenge the more seasoned Gleason to a real game, betting $50 on the outcome. Newman broke, then Gleason took his turn and sank all 15 balls without allowing Newman another shot. Newman paid up the next day with 5,000 pennies.
14. Bleeding money from the ongoing debacle of the production of 'Cleopatra,' 20th Century Fox devoted few resources to marketing 'The Hustler' and dumped the film into wide release without much publicity on Sept. 25, 1961. But the film got some advance buzz from a midnight screening in New York for Broadway actors, arranged by Richard Burton (star of Rossen's 'Alexander the Great'). Critics received the film well (though some were put off by the rank pool hall settings), and audiences made it a hit.
15. 'The Hustler' pocketed nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It would win two, for its art direction (by Harry Horner and Gene Callahan) and its black-and-white cinematography (by Eugen Schüfftan).
16. The film also earned Oscar nominations for all four of its stars. None of them won. Scott became the first actor ever to decline a nomination, saying that he found the notion of competing against fellow actors in the Academy's "meat contest" beneath his dignity. Nine years later, when he won the Best Actor Oscar for 'Patton,' he became the first actor to refuse to accept the prize.
17. While promoting the film, Laurie met and fell in love with entertainment journalist Joe Morgenstern. They married in early 1962, and when new roles failed to come her way after 'The Hustler,' she went into semi-retirement, left Hollywood, and raised a family. She wouldn't make another movie for 15 years, returning memorably to the screen with her Oscar-nominated performance as Sissy Spacek's religious-fanatic mom in 'Carrie.' She and Morgenstern divorced after two decades. She remains an in-demand character actress to this day; Morgenstern is still the long-time film critic at the Wall Street Journal.
18. Fast Eddie became the career-defining role Newman had been looking for, the prototype of the cocky, morally compromised, stubborn antihero Newman would play for the next couple of decades in such films as 'Hud,' 'Cool Hand Luke,' 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,' 'The Sting,' and 'Slap Shot.' It's also the only role that ever won him an Oscar (he was nominated eight times), though he didn't win it until he reprised the role in the sequel, 'The Color of Money,' 25 years later.
19. Former boxing champ Jake LaMotta has a cameo in 'The Hustler' as a bartender. LaMotta, of course, would be immortalized two decades later in Robert De Niro's performance in 'Raging Bull,' directed by future 'Color of Money' director Martin Scorsese.
20. In an interview promoting 'The Hustler,' Mosconi claimed that the character Minnesota Fats was based on real-life pool hustler Rudy Wanderone, who was known as New York Fatty. Wanderone took advantage of the shout-out, renamed himself Minnesota Fats, and became famous in his own right as an exhibition player - his relentless self-promotion and flamboyance soon made him too recognizable to hustle. Tevis always denied that he had based Fats on Wanderone. Several real-life players also claimed to be the inspiration for the character of Fast Eddie Felson, though Tevis denied their claims as well.
21. Pool took off in popularity after the release of 'The Hustler.' Mosconi and Wanderone both served as traveling ambassadors for the game, with Mosconi trying to make the game more genteel and respectable and Wanderone playing up its seamier side, as portrayed in the film. The two faced off a number of times in televised matches.
22. Wanderone starred in his own pool-themed movie, 'The Player,' in 1971. The tagline: "The Love. The Hate. The Raw Emotion... Set in the dingey [sic] grime and stench of the poolroom." It was not a hit.
23. Despite the success of 'The Hustler,' Rossen made only one more film, the psychological drama 'Lilith' (1964), starring Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg. Many critics consider it his best, even better than 'The Hustler' or 'All the King's Men.' He died in 1966.
24. Why did it take a quarter-century for a sequel to be filmed? Because that's how much time passed before Tevis wrote one. His book 'The Color of Money,' published in 1984, centered on an older-and-wiser Fast Eddie. The film version came out in 1986, directed by Scorsese (it's the only sequel he's ever made) and starring Newman and Tom Cruise.
25. Newman had won an honorary Oscar that spring after six unsuccessful Oscar nominations. When he was nominated the following spring for 'Color of Money,' he didn't show up to the ceremony, assuming he wouldn't win after having won the career-achievement prize the year before. He was wrong.
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