Corrections Department #7: Cliff Robertson and The Hustler
September 15, 2011
When Cliff Robertson, one of sixties television’s most persuasive and sought-after leading men, died over the weekend, I noticed a factual inaccuracy repeated in several obituaries, most prominently the Washington Post’s. As we’ve seen in earlier cases, like that of Sidney Lumet, otherwise impeccable obituarists tend to get their feet tangled in the murk of early television. Let’s set the record straight on this one.
Robertson’s most famous film role, at least at one time, was the one for which he won an Oscar – Charly (1968), the mentally retarded man made super-smart by science, which he had first played in a 1961 United States Steel Hour called “The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon.” In its obituary for Robertson, the Post set the stage for Charly with these paragraphs:
While acquiescing to studio demands in a run of undistinguished films, Mr. Robertson found more compelling work on live television. He played a pool shark in “The Hustler” and a married alcoholic in “Days of Wine and Roses.”
When it came time to cast the film versions, he was overlooked in favor of bigger stars: Paul Newman and Jack Lemmon, respectively. “I was starting to get a reputation as always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” Mr. Robertson said decades later.
It’s a catchy factoid: Robertson, the perennial also-ran, loses out on not one but two key film roles he had originated on television, then wises up and buys the movie rights to a third, to great triumph. But it’s wrong.
Robertson did give an extraordinary performance in the Playhouse 90 broadcast of “Days of Wine and Roses.” But Robertson was not in the live television version of The Hustler. In fact, there was no live television version of The Hustler.
Walter Tevis first wrote the story of pool shark Fast Eddie Felson as a Playboy short story in 1957, turned it into a novel two years later, and saw the Paul Newman film come out two years after that. No video incarnation was produced during that four-year stretch.
So from where did this persistent bit of misinformation originate? Possibly from Robertson himself. In Shoptalk: Conversations About Theater and Film With Twelve Writers, One Producer – and Tennessee Williams’ Mother (Newmarket, 1993), Robertson told author Dennis Brown that
Back in the late 1950s I did several shows on live television, things like Days of Wine and Roses and The Hustler, that went to other actors when they were made into movies. I came to the conclusion that in order to get a great role, I had to develop it for myself.
Was Robertson inventing his association with The Hustler – embellishing his resume with a role he didn’t get? No, but he was stretching the truth a bit.
Robertson did star in a television anthology segment about a nervy young pool hustler who faces off against a fat, cocky old pro (Harold J. Stone). The show was called “Goodbye, Johnny,” and it was first aired on Alcoa Theatre on February 9, 1959. But “Goodbye, Johnny” was shot on film, not broadcast live; the characters’ names are all different from those in The Hustler; and Walter Tevis’s name appears nowhere in the credits. A number of reference books have identified “Goodbye, Johnny” as an adaptation of The Hustler, but that’s plainly inaccurate. The only connection that one might establish between them would be a charge of plagiarism against the writer of “Goodbye, Johnny,” Leonard Freeman. (I’ve seen both the film and the television episode, but not recently enough to take a position on that subject; and I haven’t read either the short or the long version of Tevis’s text.)
Clearly Robertson felt there was a link between “Goodbye, Johnny” and The Hustler. That’s probably because Robertson auditioned unsuccessfully for the role of Fast Eddie Felson; and, according to at least one source, it was “Goodbye, Johnny” that got him that audition. So maybe for Robertson, Johnny Keegan really was just the TV version of a movie role he never got. But for the rest of us, it’s just sloppy fact checking.
As a postscript: I greatly enjoyed learning, as I researched this piece, that our new friend Gerald S. O’Loughlin played a pivotal role in the Charly story, and that Robertson was a big fan of his. O’Loughlin was in the cast of “The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon,” and, as Robertson tells it in his Archive of American Television oral history,
Gerald O’Loughlin had a profound impact. He was one of the wonderful character actors; still is. We were doing the TV version of Charly . . . and he said to me, in the middle of the week, “Cliff, you’re doing a hell of a job. Who do you think’ll do the movie?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, you know, every time you do a good job on television, whether it’s Days of Wine and Roses or what, some movie star comes along and buys it or gets it and you’re watching it and you’re not [in it]. Who do you think’ll get the movie?” And I said, “Well, knowing Hollywood, maybe Debbie Reynolds,” just to be kidding. So that was Gerry O’Loughlin, also a member of the Actors Studio. Great actor.
And one more for the road: The Los Angeles Times claims that thirty-year All My Children star Mary Fickett, who died on September 8,
found steady work in television in the 1950s and ’60s, including the anthology programs “Kraft Theatre,” “Armstrong Circle Theatre” and “The United States Steel Hour,” as well as “The Edge of Night,” “The Nurses” and other prime-time series. When “The Nurses” was turned into a daytime drama in 1965, she continued her role.
Wrong: Fickett was a guest star on a 1963 episode of the prime-time The Nurses called “A Dark World,” playing Karen Gardner, a nurse who transfers to the psych ward as part of the recovery process from her own breakdown. (Ah, medicine!) When she joined the daytime The Nurses in 1965, Fickett took over the leading role of senior nurse Liz Thorpe from the original star, Shirl Conway.