Saturday, April 2, 2016

"A Game of Pool"

A game of life or death. Fats Brown (Jonathan Winters) attempts
to teach young pool shark Jesse Cardiff (Jack Klugman)
about the price of being the best.

“A Game of Pool”
Season Three, Episode 70
Original Air Date: October 13, 1961

Jesse Cardiff: Jack Klugman
James Howard Brown (a.k.a. Fats Brown): Jonathan Winters

Writer: George Clayton Johnson (original teleplay)
Director: Buzz Kulik
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: Jack Swain
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Phil Barber
Set Decoration: H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: Darrell Hallenbeck
Editor: Jason H. Bernie
Story Consultant: Richard McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week we engage in ‘A Game of Pool.’ That’s both an activity and a title. A play written by George Clayton Johnson and starring Mr. Jack Klugman and Mr. Jonathan Winters. It’s the story about the best pool player living…and the best pool player dead. And this one, we submit, will stay with you for quite a while. Next week on the Twilight Zone, ‘A Game of Pool.’”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Jesse Cardiff, pool shark. The best on Randolph Street. Who will soon learn that trying to be the best at anything carries its own special risks in or out…of the Twilight Zone.”

            Empty pool hall. Randolph Street, Chicago. Young pool hustler Jesse Cardiff spends his life here pledging to one day be the best at his craft. While practicing alone after hours one night he decides that he is the best pool player that ever walked the streets of Chicago. Better even, than the legend, Fats Brown, dead fifteen years now. If only he could play one round with the late legend he could claim his rightful title.
            In another world somewhere, Fats Brown quietly plays a game of pool by himself. A voice summons him to a pool hall on Randolph Street in Chicago. He picks up his belongings and prepares to leave.
            Back on Randolph Street Cardiff hears a voice behind him and turns to find a familiar face hidden in the shadows. It belongs to Fats Brown. He is here, he says, to challenge Cardiff’s claim of being the best pool player on Randolph Street. It takes some harsh prodding but Cardiff agrees to play the big man. But it doesn’t come without risk. Brown proposes to make it a life or death affair. If Cardiff wins then he lives. If he loses, he dies.
            Cardiff racks the balls and Brown breaks them, a break that sends two balls gently into the railing and then back towards the formation, leaving it up to Cardiff to scatter the balls. Impressed, Cardiff is caught off-guard by this maneuver but doesn’t let it shake him. He gently nudges one of the loose balls leaving the original triangle unbroken. Then he smiles. Brown calls the fifteen ball and misses, leaving Cardiff the run of the table.
            They continue like this for hours, with Cardiff in the lead. Then Brown begins to land every single shot, rarely giving Cardiff an opportunity to shoot. It appears the young hustler has been hustled. At the end of the night they are nearly tied with Cardiff only two points ahead. He needs to sink one ball to win. Brown does everything he can to distract his opponent, causing Cardiff to miss. Brown takes his last shot and misses, leaving Cardiff with a pocket-hanger. If he sinks this, he wins. He’ll get to live and he will be the greatest pool player of all time. He begins to boast to Brown, throwing the big man’s words back in his face. Brown informs him that he would actually like to see the young man win but warns him that if he does he “may win more than he bargained for.” Cardiff brushes him off and sinks his last shot. He picks the cue ball up and gives it a kiss. He is king.
            Brown simply says, “thanks.” Cardiff asks him what he means and Brown tells him that he will find out whenever he tries to leave Randolph Street. Cardiff turns away for only a second but when he turns back Brown is gone. Cardiff then comes to the realization that he is the only one who will ever know that he beat the legend, Fats Brown. But at the moment, it doesn’t matter.
            Later, far away somewhere. A broken Jesse Cardiff rests his head on a pool table. A voice tells him to report to Mason’s Pool Hall, Sandusky, Ohio. Weary and exhausted, Cardiff reluctantly stumbles off to defend his crown.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Mr. Jesse Cardiff, who became a legend by beating one, but who has found out after his funeral that being the best of anything carries with it a special obligation to keep on proving it. Mr. Fats Brown, on the other hand, having relinquished the champion’s mantle, has gone fishing. These are the ground rules in the Twilight Zone.”

            “A Game of Pool” marks the fourth contribution and second original teleplay from writer George Clayton Johnson, cementing his foothold as an invaluable voice on the program. Widely considered a highpoint in the show’s run, it set the bar exceedingly high for pure dramatic tension. The most interesting, and discussed, aspects of “A Game of Pool” is the casting of comedian Jonathan Winters (1925 – 2013) in the dramatic role of the ghost of pool hall legend Fats Brown, and the changing of George Clayton Johnson’s original ending into the light and irreverent ending seen in the episode.           
            Jack Klugman (1922-2012) portrays Jesse Cardiff, an angry young pool player who has dedicated an unhealthy amount of his life to the game and longs to be remembered as the best to ever play. Klugman, as noted in previous posts, already had a successful career as a dramatic actor who developed his craft on the stage and in live anthology programs of the 1950s, as well as in such feature films as Twelve Angry Men (1957). Klugman and Serling first worked together in 1959 when the young actor appeared in Serling’s semi-autobiographical Playhouse 90 production, “The Velvet Alley.” Klugman’s “everyman” stage persona likely appealed to Serling a great deal and made him an obvious choice when casting The Twilight Zone. Serling reportedly postponed production on Season One’s “A Passage for Trumpet,” Klugman’s first appearance on the show, specifically to accommodate the actor’s filming schedule. Klugman would become arguably the most recognizable actor to grace the series, turning in excellent star performances in four above average episodes. His relationship to the show was such that by the time production began on “A Game of Pool” he was willing to accept offers for work on the series without first reading the script, such was his respect for Rod Serling and the quality of the writing on the series. Although he would go on to achieve pop culture immortality in the television adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple and later on the NBC medical drama Quincy M.E., The Twilight Zone is still considered one of the jewels of his long career.
            With the unusual nature of “A Game of Pool,” two actors on two simple sets (the pool hall and the afterlife set), the actor cast opposite Klugman would need to be effective and have the acting talent to carry an intensely compact story. Initially, Buck Houghton sought an actor like Jack Warden, the gruff actor who previously appeared in the first season episode, “The Lonely.” However, Rod Serling had an ace in his pocket. Martin Grams, Jr., author of the book The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR, 2008), indicates correspondence which Rod Serling had previously received from Jonathan Winters in which the popular television comedian expressed interest in appearing in an episode of the series. At the time, according to this correspondence, Serling had nothing in line that would suit Winters but assured Winters that a call would come when something came up that they could both get behind. Whether or not this is the method in which Winters was actually hired to portray Fats Brown is inconsequential. Serling did have a great amount of imput with casting and it is probable that he recommended Winters for the part. 
            Winters did not quite fit George Clayton Johnson’s original description of Fats Brown. Though Winter's had the build of the Minnesota Fats-like character, Johnson wrote him as bearded and ponderous. It quickly became evident, however, that Winters was going to make the character his own. Johnson was an avid pool player at the time he wrote “A Game of Pool” and was especially enamored by the 1959 novel The Hustler by American novelist Walter Tevis. The novel tells the story of a young, ambitious pool shark named Fast Eddie Felson who challenges pool legend Minnesota Fats only to lose and receive a much needed lesson in winning and losing and the price of being the best at something. According to Johnson, he was working on a story that would eventually become “A Game of Pool” (originally titled, “The Pool Player”) when he first read Tevis’s novel. Johnson took the general premise and theme of the novel and compressed it into a dialogue-filled sketch that focused on Cardiff’s obsession with being the best and his ignorance at ignoring the world around him. But while Felson learns his lesson at the end of the novel, Cardiff, at least in Johnson’s original script, does not and the story ends with him falling even deeper into his obsession.
20th Century Fox released a film adaptation of The Hustler in September, 1961, directed by Robert Rossen and starring Paul Newman as Fast Eddie and Jackie Gleason (another comedian in a breakout dramatic role) as Minnesota Fats. The similarities between The Hustler (both the novel and the film) and “A Game of Pool” are profound, so much so that George Clayton Johnson considered changing the name of Fats Brown to something more prosaic, like John Brown, to disguise the debt owed to the Walter Tevis story. And although Johnson’s script owes much to the novel, no one involved with the episode could have known for certain of the similarities between Rossen’s film and “A Game of Pool” as the former was theatrically released on September 25, 1961 and the latter filmed two months earlier, in late July. Despite the similarities, however, the show delivered an end product with enough dramatic tension to challenge even such a venerated American film as The Hustler.
            Though Jonathan Winters would appear on hundreds of television broadcasts throughout his long career, he was mainly known as a comedian on television variety shows at the time he appeared in “A Game of Pool.” The episode served to show the quality talented comedians could bring to a dramatic series. This was not the first time The Twilight Zone presented a well-known comedian in a dramatic fashion. The first season episode “One For the Angels” featured comedian Ed Wynn in a dramatic role, though Wynn had already displayed his dramatic skills in Rod Serling’s Emmy Award winning Playhouse 90 production “Requiem For a Heavyweight” in 1956. An interesting note here is that both Wynn and Jonathan Winters, when first attempting a dramatic role, would fall into comedy routines when accidentally flubbing a line or missing a mark as a way to ease the tension of the transition.
            In 1960, Jonathan Winters began recording comedy albums and would continue to do so throughout his career, albums which would eventually pull in eleven Emmy Award nominations. It was an obvious course for his career as he had been performing voice work for commercials since the mid-1950s. Winters launched his career on radio after an impromptu talent show entry (and win) and would move on to commercials selling beer and trash bags and appearances on television. During this time he also began doing stand-up comedy and quickly gained a reputation within the comedy circuit for his unique blend of quick-witted impressions and deadpan facial expressions. Today he is considered a master of improvisational comedy. In 1954, Winters made his first appearance on television on the talent show Chance of a Lifetime. By the end of the decade Winters had his own television show on NBC and was a frequent guest of Jack Parr’s Tonight Show and The Steve Allen Show. By the early 1960s Winters was interested in diversifying his resume and thus came the letter to Rod Serling expressing interest in appearing on The Twilight Zone.
            The decision to broaden his acting career came at a difficult period in the comedian’s life. Time spent on the road away from his family and the pressure of non-stop touring caused Winters to suffer a breakdown and subsequently spend two weeks under psychiatric evaluation in 1959. In 1961, Winters was again admitted for psychiatric evaluation in Belmont, California for an even longer stay, some reports stating as long as eight months, which would have allowed very little time between his discharge from Belmont and the filming of "A Game of Pool." After this period of difficulty, Winters quit touring the stand-up circuit and focused on television work and his recording career. 
           At the time, Hollywood’s attitude towards mental illness was very different than it is today and artists who had been publicly outed as unstable were often slighted and ignored by the industry. Winters likely wanted to prove himself as a performer by venturing into unfamiliar terrain. “A Game of Pool” was the first of many serious dramatic performances that would showcase the actor’s flexibility. According to Buzz Kulik and Buck Houghton, Winters was very nervous about his performance and was very eager to do it well.
           Though originally written to be a ponderous character, Winters played Fats as focused, intense, a bit patronizing. He exudes confidence, wisdom, and pressure. He doesn’t need to verbally berate the young, blindly confident Jesse Cardiff. The mannerisms and facial expressions of Winters told the audience everything going on inside the character’s head. It is a testament to Winter’s mastery of expression that he was able to be subtle in his performance and still bring across more than enough dramatic tension to keep the encounter between the two men lively and believable.
            Buzz Kulik would direct a total of nine episodes of the show before it was over, many of them overlooked classics such as Season Two’s “Static” or “The Trouble with Templeton.”  But “A Game of Pool” is arguably his greatest achievement. Realizing that the script was deliberately simplistic, Kulik shoots the episode with a restrained attitude, leaving much of the focus on the relationship of the actors. The episode has an unusually high number of extreme close-ups, revealing endless beads of sweat dripping down the faces of the actors, emphasizing the effort given by both the characters and the actors. This is one of only a handful of episodes that does not feature stalwart director of photographer George T. Clemens. Jack Swain steps in for Clemens here and does a fine job. He would go to work on five more episodes during the third season. It is likely that the Emmy Award which George T. Clemens received after his exceptional work on the second season of the series meant more calls for his skills behind a camera on other television and film projects. 
            The most reported aspect of “A Game of Pool” is the fact that the ending as filmed was not that as written by George Clayton Johnson. This is interesting chiefly because The Twilight Zone was seen as a series that served the writer more than other series and production rarely changed anything about the script without the writer’s approval. An episode such as “Long Distance Call” from the second season required rewrites to suit a more effective ending but was served by the fact that the writers, Charles Beaumont and William Idelson, were available on the set to do the rewrites then and there and therefore not impede the tight shooting schedule. Perhaps “A Game of Pool” would have been served the same way but for the fact that George Clayton Johnson was unable to be present on the filming of the episode.
            At the time of production, Johnson was on the set of the 1962 Roger Corman film, The Intruder. This film was an adaptation of the 1959 Charles Beaumont novel of the same name, in which a racist named Adam Cramer (portrayed by William Shatner) incites racially motivated violence in a fictional Southern town. Beaumont and Johnson both had roles in the film and were therefore devoting a sizable amount of time to the film while in the midst of production on the third season of The Twilight Zone. In a much later interview with author Matthew R. Bradley, Johnson recalled how Buck Houghton called him at the time of filming "A Game of Pool" to tell him there was a problem with Johnson’s ending and that they were considering a new conclusion to the show. Director Buzz Kulik told author Marc Scott Zicree (The Twilight Zone Companion) that it required three attempts before they settled on an ending upon which they could wrap the episode. The ending George Clayton Johnson wrote was never filmed for the original series and would have to wait until the 1980s Twilight Zone series to be realized with rather uninspiring results. Johnson’s original ending can be read in its entirety in Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion.
            As written, Jesse Cardiff loses the game to Fats, much as Fast Eddie loses to Minnesota Fats in The Hustler. Though Fats Brown told Jesse that the terms of the game were life and death this turns out to be a bit of a bluff as Fats tells Jesse that he won’t die then and there but would instead live out his life as a second rate player and die forgotten while he, Fats, would live on in the minds of those that followed the game as a legend and the best there ever was. The episode was to end with Jesse raging against this fate and promising to practice harder than ever in the coming years and to again one day challenge Fats’s mantle as legend. Johnson was particularly eager to see Jack Klugman deliver the final furious lines of dialogue as the writer noted that Klugman was particularly talented at this type of enraged defiance in his performances.
            Though the reasons for the change are hazy at best, the show was, by the third season, well aware of its own reputation as a series which displayed the O. Henry-type twist ending on stories. For the casual fan of the series this is the quality most often recalled about The Twilight Zone and it stands to reason that production felt the need to insert this type of twist in all of its episodes. Though Johnson’s original ending packed a dramatic punch it may have been seen as too subtle, too straight forward drama for a series that traded in fantasy. Although the filmed ending does alleviate some of the hard earned tension built up in the episode, it does present some interesting design elements and reveals interesting aspects of character.
            As mentioned, in 1989 the first Twilight Zone revival series filmed a new version of “A Game of Pool” for its third season, with Esai Morales as Cardiff and Maury Chaykin as Fats Brown. It was directed by Randy Bradshaw. The decision to remake such an exceptionally well-crafted and revered episode is due likely to the controversy surrounding the original ending. The producers chose to utilize Johnson’s original script for this version and, unfortunately, the result is fairly underwhelming. The plot of the episode, up until its denouement, is much the same as in the original. One notable difference, however, is that the episode begins with the pool hall closing for the night and briefly features a handful of other actors instead of just the two leads. The time period is also updated to then present day 1989. Morales and Chaykin both deliver competent but forgettable performances and Bradshaw’s direction is similarly uninspiring. In his interview with Bradley, George Clayton Johnson says that he was even more disappointed with this second version, featuring his restored ending, than he was with the original episode. 
          A macabre touch during the afterlife scenes, for both Fats and Jesse, is that all the balls on the pool table are black, thus making it impossible to play anything but a solitary game of the traditionally competitive sport, highlighting the loneliness that is part of the baggage of being the best. It is interesting to note as well the difference in character when viewed in the afterlife. At the beginning of the episode Fats is seen actively playing pool in the afterlife, dutifully taking his cue along when the next challenger is announced by a disembodied voice. On the other hand, Jesse is seen as dejected and weary when he finally achieves his legendary mantle. The moral, perhaps, is be careful what you wish for, and that the burden of being a legend can be heavy indeed.
            The ending as filmed is not quite as bad as many viewers and critics have made it out to be despite an inappropriate flourish of light music to end the episode, which, in general, treads along a dark path. Though the changing of the original writer’s intentions is rarely a good idea, the episode remains a favorite of viewers and one of the two dozen or so most highly regarded episodes by those of us that analyze the series. One positive aspect of the episode is that it fully utilized George Clayton Johnson’s skill as a writer of tough, street-wise dialogue and his unerring sense of drama using little more than two or three characters. Although “A Game of Pool” largely represented a change in Johnson’s writing style, from sentimental, Ray Bradburyesque stories to tough, noir-type fiction, it is a transition easy to follow from the writer's previous work. Johnson was writing the streetwise type of story as early as his stroy treatment that was eventually filmed as Ocean’s 11 in 1960. The viewer may also look to Rod Serling’s adaptations of “The Four of Us Are Dying” and “Execution” to see that Johnson’s story ideas were often on the tougher end of the spectrum, replete with violence and noir-ish sensibilities. Of course, Johnson would go on to write his share of light and touching material, such as “Nothing in the Dark,” “Kick the Can,” and “Ninety Years Without Slumbering,” episodes which are much more sentimental and optimistic than “A Game of Pool.”

Grade: A+

--Information on Jonathan Winters's nervous breakdowns of 1959 and 1961 was taken from "Jonathan Winters, Unpredictable Comic and Master of Improvisation, Dies at 87" by William Grimes, New York Times, April 12, 2013. Accessed on 4/1/2016. 
--Jack Klugman also appears in Season One’s “A Passage for Trumpet,” Season Four’s “Death Ship,” and Season Five’s “In Praise of Pip.”
--Director of Photographer Jack Swain lent his talents to five other episodes, all during Season Three:
            “Deaths-head Revisited”
            “Still Valley”
            “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank”
            “The Fugitive”
            “Hocus-pocus and Frisby”
--“A Game of Pool” was adapted as an episode of the 1980’s Twilight Zone revival series. It was directed by Randy Bradshaw with Elias Morales as Jesse Cardiff and Maury Chaykin as Fats Brown. It features George Clayton Johnson’s original script with updated material by Will Bermender. It originally aired on February 4, 1989. 
--"A Game of Pool" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Wade Williams (Falcon Picture Group).  

--Jordan Prejean and Brian Durant


  1. A+!! I agree with your grade. Klugman is (as usual) terrific, Winters is great, and script and direction are top-notch Thanks for the interesting article!

  2. This episode is endlessly fascinating and has a lot of interesting history behind it. It's one of those episodes you can watch over again and pick out things you missed the time before. The dialogue is outstanding and I love the little moments of tension between the two men, especially moments like when Jesse shrugs off Fats's warning right before Jesse sinks that last shot. "You may get more than you bargained for." To which Fats adds: "Sorry. I'm required to say that." It's a great line, and chilling.

    I've personally never minded the ending as filmed. Perhaps it's a nostalgic thing since I was very young when I first saw this episode. But I really do believe that the combination of an anticlimatic ending and the need for the O. Henry twist pushed the production into changing the script. My only gripe with the ending as filmed when I view it now is that the music and Serling's outgoing narration lend it a feeling of light whimsy when a more darkly ironic tone should have been used.

  3. I don't understand the original ending. Everything seems to be building up to Cardiff winning and realizing too late he'll waste his life forever playing pool just so he can keep the bitter title of champion for himself and lord it over everyone. In the original, he loses, learns nothing and continues to waste his life trying to prove he's better than a dead man. He doesn't change and Fats seems to come off as a jerk, refusing to relinquish his title even though he's dead.

    I just don't understand the point of the original ending. If someone could explain it to me, I'd love to hear your take on it.

    1. Here’s how I understand it. The original ending finds Cardiff losing and believing to be immediately killed by Fats, since the terms of the bet were life and death. However, Fats does not kill him and explains to Cardiff that the terms of life and death are not what he believes them to be. Cardiff has lost the game and consequently he will die forgotten, not remembered as a champion. This fate will eat at Cardiff for the rest of his life and is a fate worse than immediate death. Perhaps the misstep by Clayton Johnson is that he doesn’t leave it there but instead indicates that Cardiff will continue to practice and get better and perhaps have another opportunity to prove that he is better than Fats.

      I prefer the ending as filmed but, as I said in the commentary and in the comment above, I find the tone used in filming it to be way off. They went with whimsical and humorous when they should have gone for somber and melancholy. Hope this helps and thanks for stopping by.

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  5. If I taught an acting class, "A Game of Pool" would be required viewing for my students. In essence, it is nothing but two men talking, alone in a room with one another, for 24 minutes; the pool moves are the only breaks in the conversation, and they are quite brief. Neither man has much going for him in the looks department; and yet the entire exercise is as riveting as it could possibly be. When both writing and acting ability are on this level, you realize the degree to which gaudy special effects are the empty calories of film and television. We know Fats and Jesse thoroughly by the end of the piece (Klugman is especially masterful at conveying how Jesse takes pride in having excluded every consideration in life other than pool from his field of vision, while AT THE SAME TIME hating himself for his folly in wasting his life, and hating Fats for, as he sees it, MAKING him be the Captain Ahab of the poolhall, by holding up his untouchable example of perfection for Jesse to chase). A superb chamber drama (literally) all around.

  6. According to INMB there was actress Dee Sharon as "Browns girlfriend" but the scenes were cut. I seen both versions and personally I preferred the 1961 the way when Cardiff goes to Sandusky Ohio to defend his title as the best he carries Brown's pool cue...Brown claims he had a life of his own but he was a professional pool player for 35 years 1911-1946. Ironically according to "A Game of Pool (billiards TV) - 8 Ball on the Silver Screen" KLugman was a talented amateur pool player and Winters didn't play pool!

  7. "A Game of Pool" is one of "The Twilight Zone"s absolutely perfect episodes, like "Living Doll", "It's A Good Life", and "Miniature". One of its most powerful dimensions is all the more effective for being left unspoken: Jesse Cardiff has won a victory that makes him "the best ever", AND NO ONE BUT HIM WILL EVER KNOW ABOUT IT. A huge part of being "the best ever" is the acclaim: from your peers, from the wannabes, from the fans. Fats Brown had that adulation; Jesse, having beaten a dead man, never will -- at least not until he "leaves Randolph Street" for the Great Beyond. One question: Jesse knew that Fats was the best, because Fats won his title while he was still alive. When someone else expresses the wish to "beat the best", and Jesse shows up, will they even know who he is? Or are we supposed to take Jesse's win over Fats as at least partly symbolic: signifying that Jesse now WILL win the games and tournaments that will make him the best in the world's eyes, so that his picture will eventually replace Fats' on that wall?

  8. I would give a good deal to know what led Rod Serling to cast Jonathan Winters in "A Game of Pool". He's absolutely wonderful in his part; but one doesn't ordinarily cast a comic performer in a dramatic role. Then again, sometimes that type of thinking can yield priceless treasures. If you haven't already seen them, rent the TV film "Friendly Fire", and the feature film "Pete 'n Tillie". Carol Burnett, who made herself into a national treasure as a comedienne, gives two powerhouse dramatic performances that Meryl Streep couldn't have improved upon. (In "Pete 'n Tillie", she and her husband, played by Walter Matthau, have just been told that their eight year-old son, whom they both adore, will die soon from leukemia. At Christmas, Carol stands silently in the living-room door, watching her husband and son playing with his gifts. She turns and walks out onto the front lawn; looks heavenward; and begins screaming abuse at the Blessed Virgin. "HOW DARE YOU CALL YOURSELF 'MOTHER OF MERCY'? I SPIT ON YOU!' I always admire performers that you think that you've pigeonholed, who then turn around and surprise the hell out of you. (I haven't mentioned Jack Klugman, because his versatility was already a matter of record -- and God bless Rod for giving him four solid-gold showcases in the "Zone".)