For all intents & purposes Paul Newman was a character actor trapped inside a matinee idol’s good looks. He was a craftsman who worked very hard to make his performances appear effortless, preferring rehearsal time to the actual shooting of scenes. He was a Broadway, then TV star before making it in films & his career was almost sidetracked by several weak scripts early in a contract with Warner Bros. Newman was also a WWII veteran who returned to college on the GI bill & didn’t even begin focusing on acting until his mid-twenties. After a year at Yale’s School of Drama he moved to New York & dedicated himself to perfecting his craft, joining the Actor’s Studio (only after attending an audition with a friend), then over the course of the next 6 years was in the original Broadway productions of Picnic (William Inge), The Desperate Hours (Joseph Hayes) & Sweet Bird of Youth (Tennessee Williams). In 1954 he made his film debut in a sword & sandal dud called The Silver Chalice, a film so bad Newman once paid a local station not to air it. 2 Years later, in Somebody Up There Likes Me (’56), Newman made a splash playing world boxing champion Rocky Graziano. It wasn’t until 4 years after that, with the release of The Long, Hot Summer (’58), however, that the Newman personae & film presence began to take hold. Acting alongside future second wife Joanne Woodward, Newman’s cocky, manipulative & very sexy Ben Quick set the stage for the better part of the next decade of Newman’s career. It was the sparkle in those magic blue eyes that sometimes shone brightly & sometimes grew dark that grounded his performances in an emotional depth that would continue to grow deeper over the course of his 50+ year career.
Newman was nominated for 10 acting Oscars, but won only once, for The Color of Money (’87), in what some say was payback for being passed over for the award playing the same character, Eddie Felson, in Newman’s best film, The Hustler (’62).
The Hustler, released in 1961 through 20th Century Fox, tells the story of a cocky up & coming pool shark out to prove he’s the best, no matter what the cost. Starring Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason & Piper Laurie, The Hustler was originally set up as an independent production by writer/director Robert Rossen. To lure Newman, who was coming off the 1960 box office hit Exodus (#4), Rossen promised him 10% of the profits from the film. Newman’s involvement, however, guaranteed the film’s financing & Fox came aboard, at no small cost to Rossen.
Having directed the classic boxing film Body & Soul (1947) & the political corruption yarn All the King’s Men in 1949, Rossen was no stranger to society’s unseemly underbelly, which made him the perfect director to bring novelist Walter Tevis’ characters to life. Rossen favored shooting his films is black & white & shot most of The Hustler on location in New York pool halls, with both combining to give the film its gritty, seedy feel. To help in editing the pool scenes, black & white Polaroids were taken of the pool balls to help match them from cut to cut. During shooting, producers thought the title would invite confusion in customers, however, thinking the movie might be about prostitution, so they considered changing the title to “Stroke of Luck” or “Sin of Angels” before going back to the novel’s title.
World champion pool player Willie Mosconi was not only the technical advisor on the film, but his hands are often seen in close-ups of Newman’s more difficult shots & appears as Willie the guy who holds the stakes for Eddie’s & Fat’s games. As he was involved on the picture before Newman came onboard, Mosconi had suggested Frank Sinatra for Fast Eddie, but Rossen was already enamored of Newman. Newman admitted that he had never really picked up a pool que before, so Mosconi worked intently with him & Newman was a quick learner, going so far as to move a pool table into he & wife Joanne Woodward’s New York apartment. Gleason was a semi-pro player himself, so his shots in the film are his own.
Gleason was a bit of a shark & a bit of a hustler too & during shooting he challenged Newman to a series of games for $1 each, which Newman proceeded to win. Gleason upped the anty to $100 & cleaned Newman’s clock. Newman paid the bet in pennies. According to Newman’s biographer, several years later Newman was playing pool at a private club in Beverly Hills when a fan approached him & said “I’ve seen The Hustler 3 times & it’s one hell of a movie. I watched you play pool tonight & it’s one of the greatest disappointments of my life.” While apparently not good enough for that fan, Newman was in fact a pretty good player & most of the wide-angle shots were done in limited takes.
Rossen & Newman were both very serious about their work, which led to a tense set. Piper Laurie, who plays Fast Eddie’s love interest Sarah Packard was so intimidated by Newman’s good looks that she could scarcely look him in the eye the first few days on set. She later admitted that once you got over “the movie star” Newman was a hard working & supportive acting partner. George C. Scott, who plays the malevolent Bert Gordon, & acting in only his third film, had already developed a reputation as a difficult actor & Laurie avoided him throughout the shoot, with Scott keeping his distance from the rest of the cast to maintain the icy relations necessary for the part. Gleason, however, couldn’t avoid a bit of a sight gag, so look for the carnation on his overcoat, with another one on his suit jacket just beneath it. When questioned about the visual, he joked that he also had a carnation stapled to his chest.
In 1961 20th Century Fox was going through a creative drought & Cleopatra, not released for another 2 years, was already sucking the financial life out of the studio. With finances constrained, the release of The Hustler was presented in an understated manner, with the premiere in Washington, DC. Newsreel coverage of the event, clearly not understanding the story of the film, focused on the corruption focused congressmen who attended the screening for potential educational opportunities. While reviews were generally strong, it took Richard Burton throwing a screening for the casts of Broadway plays to give the film the positiv