The Hustler: Chalk Up Some Classic Movie Memorabilia

February 7, 2020

In 1961, Robert Rossen’s “The Hustler” hit movie theaters like an earsplitting sledgehammer break in the opening sequence of a pool game. The figurative crack of the white cue ball meeting the tight, V-shaped formation of multi-colored billiard balls sent reverberations coursing through Hollywood and beyond, delivering what many believe to be the all-time classic pool film.
Fifty-nine years have passed since the debut of “The Hustler,” and the movie remains as popular and timeless as ever. Movie and sports memorabilia enthusiasts especially love the film, earning “The Hustler” a prime-time spot on the collectibles trail.
Based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Walter S. Tevis, “The Hustler” was produced, directed and co-written (with Sidney Carroll) for the big screen by Robert Rossen. Scoring the film’s jazzy music score was Kenyon Hopkins, with Eugen Schufftan providing the gritty black-and-white cinematography. Heading the cast were Paul Newman as “Fast” Eddie Felson, Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats, Piper Laurie as Sarah Packard and George C. Scott as Bert Gordon. Also along for the ride were Myron McCormick, Murray Hamilton, Michael Constantine, Stefan Gierasch, Cliff Pellow, Jake LaMotta, Gordon B. Clarke and Vincent Gardenia.
Prior to “The Hustler,” Paul Newman had never held a pool cue in his hands. That quickly changed, however, when pool wiz/technical advisor Willie Mosconi was brought in to coach the actor. A pool table replaced Newman’s dining room table at home, and the two men would practice for hours. Newman became quite good, eventually challenging his nemesis in the film, Jackie Gleason, to a game of pocket billiards, fifty count. Gleason, once a real-life pool hustler back in his native Brooklyn, accepted the offer, with $50 as the agreed-on stakes. “He got to break the balls,” Gleason later said. “I then ran 50 balls straight. He never got a chance to chalk his cue. The bastard got even with me, though. Next day he paid me off with a jar filled with 5,000 pennies.”
Budgeted at $2 million, “The Hustler” was filmed entirely on location in New York City over the course of six weeks. Two of the movie’s principal shooting locales were McGirr’s and Ames Billiard Academy, a pair of gritty, now-defunct pool halls where much of the action takes place. Note the ironic sign crookedly hanging at Ames in the film, “No Gambling Allowed,” with an old, faded poster nearby touting the exploits of world champion billiards player Willie Mosconi, who performs many of the picture’s trick shots for Paul Newman.
“The Hustler” chronicles the life of the fictional “Fast” Eddie Felson, a young pool aficionado from Oakland, Calif., who yearns to be the number one player in the world. Standing in his way is the dapper Minnesota Fats, the reigning king of straight pool, who, according to one of his most ardent supporters, hasn’t been beaten in 15 years.
Following the hustle and fleecing of a hapless bartender at the Homestead Bar & Grill, Eddie and his partner, Charlie Burns, head to New York City, where they look up Minnesota Fats at Ames pool hall, which Eddie immediately christens “the Church of the Good Hustler.” Here Eddie takes on the venerable Minnesota Fats in a marathon pool session under the watchful gaze of professional gambler Bert Gordon, winning and then subsequently losing a small fortune.
Eddie later hooks up with Sarah Packard, a troubled, hard-drinking woman whom he meets at a bus station bar. The two find common ground in their misery, drowning their sorrows while Eddie contemplates his next move.
After parting ways with Charlie, Eddie tries to do some hustling on his own. At a riverfront dive called Arthur’s Pool Hall, Eddie is confronted by four toughs following his fleecing of a young, local pool hustler. “Why, you’re a pool shark, boy, a real pool shark,” one of the men sneers. “We got no use for pool sharks here.” The hoods then take Eddie into the bathroom where they proceed to break both of his thumbs.
While on the mend, Eddie meets up with Bert Gordon once more, signing on with the gambler as his financial backer and taking his pool act on the road. In Louisville, Ky., during Derby Week, Eddie plays wealthy James Findley at the latter’s mansion, eventually taking him for $12,000 in a marathon series of billiards.
Following Sarah’s suicide in a Louisville hotel and a violent confrontation with Bert, Eddie eventually returns to Ames where he once again challenges Minnesota Fats. “I came to play pool, Fats,” Eddie announces, toting his leather satchel with pool cue inside. The two wizards then go at each other at a cool $3,000 per game, with Eddie shooting the best pool of his life.
“The Hustler” premiered in Washington, D.C., in September of 1961 with Robert Rossen, George C. Scott, Piper Laurie and Willie Mosconi in attendance. The movie was both a critical and financial success, earning a total of nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Newman), Best Actress (Laurie), Best Supporting Actor (Gleason, Scott), and Best Director (Rossen).
“The Hustler” retains much of its magic today, especially among the collector crowd. The movie’s original one-sheet poster (27-by-41 inches), featuring Paul Newman and Piper Laurie in a steamy embrace highly reminiscent of a romance novel book cover, with a smaller inset of Jackie Gleason at bottom, curiously makes no reference to pool. The fanciful blurb reads: “It delves without compromise into the hungers that lie deep within us all!” One lightly restored example in very fine condition on linen sold at auction for $406.30.
More to pool aficionados’ liking is the reissue one-sheet poster (27-by-41 inches) from 1964 with the come-on: “They Called Him ‘Fast Eddie,’” which features a pool cue and balls as its principal theme. Designated as R-64 in auction catalogs, one restored poster in very fine condition on linen brought a top bid of $660.
Some of the more attractive “The Hustler” movie posters are the ones produced for the film’s foreign releases. From Italy, there’s the handsome “Lo Spaccone” (“The Hustler”) Italian 2 - Foglio poster (39.5-by-55 inches) expertly illustrated by Ercole Brini, which pictures Paul Newman raking in a pile of cash from the green felt of a pool table. One restored example in very fine- condition on linen realized a winning bid of $430.20.
From France, check out the “L’Arnaqueur” (“The Hustler”) French Petite poster (17.5-by-22.5 inches). It features an embracing Paul Newman and Piper Laurie along with a huge hand clutching money. An unrestored example in very fine condition with linen backing sold at auction for $107.55.
The movie’s original eight-card lobby set is a gem to own. Originally displayed in theater lobbies, hence the name, the set features 11-by-14-inch color scenes from the picture, including Fast Eddie’s monumental pool duels with Minnesota Fats and Eddie’s decidedly unpleasant encounter at Arthur’s Pool Hall with four toughs. One set in fine/very fine condition hit a top bid of $836.50.
Miscellaneous “The Hustler” items are also available. An original 136-page script from the film bearing signs of moderate use brought $597.50 at auction. An original 8-by-10-inch black-and-white still picturing technical advisor Willie Mosconi instructing Paul Newman at the pool table in good condition sold for $239. A signed 3-by-5-inch card from Jackie Gleason with accompanying still picturing him as Minnesota Fats in very fine condition brought $56 at auction. A 20th Century Fox Exhibitor’s Campaign Manual, a.k.a. pressbook, in folded, uncut, very fine- condition sold at auction for $34.
“The Hustler” produced one sequel, “The Color of Money” (1986), with Paul Newman reprising his role as “Fast” Eddie Felson and Tom Cruise as his young pool protégé, Vincent Lauria. This time around, Newman won his Best Actor Oscar, an award many felt he should have taken home in 1961 for “The Hustler.”
Auction results and images are courtesy of Heritage Auctions, Dallas, Texas.

William J. Felchner is a graduate of Illinois State University. His work has appeared in a number of periodicals, including Hot Rod, True West, Sports Collectors Digest, Movie Collector’s World, Big Reel and Pennsylvania Magazine.


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