Movies: The Big Hustler Jackie Gleason

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Click. The nine ball plops into the side pocket, the cue ball hits one cushion and stops near the center spot. Big as a water tower but light on his feet, with a diamond ring on a pudgy finger, the fat man moves around the table. For 31 consecutive hours, with an almost incredible repertoire of masse shots, bank shots, gather shots, and combinations, with just enough English and the right amount of draw, he has been defending his reputation as the best there is. He chalks up and shoots again. Click. The 15 ball slams into the corner and disappears. Minnesota Fats is still the greatest pool shark in the world.

It is a relatively small part—in Robert Rossen's movie The Hustler—but no one who has seen that fat man will forget him. A man of understated power, Minnesota Fats is played, curiously enough, by Jackie Gleason, and where audiences might have arrived expecting a million laughs from the most celebrated buffoon ever to rise through U.S. television, they leave with a single, if surprised, reaction: inside the master jester, there is a masterful actor. Gleason, the storied comedian, egotist, golfer, and gourmand, mystic, hypnotist, boozer and bull slinger, is now emerging as a first-rank star of motion pictures.

The Greatest. His talent, in fact, is so elastic that he could probably make a living in any form of show business except midget-auto racing. From his start in vaudeville as a boy in Brooklyn, he developed his galloping wit in a string of tough nightclubs before becoming the Jack of all television. Now, as a serious actor and no longer merely a situation comedian, he is surrounded by competing actors schooled in the Method, but he holds his own with unquiet confidence, bellowing, as he always has: "I'm the world's greatest." Entering his new career with appetite akimbo, he has already completed another film, Gigot, for which he wrote the story himself, and in Manhattan last week he was at work on still another, Requiem for a Heavyweight.

Gleason does his new job with remarkable ease. He memorizes at first sight. While Method actors search their souls and "live" their roles, Gleason riffles through a script and is ready to go. His fellow performers both amuse and irritate him with their warmup exercises: while shooting The Hustler, Paul Newman was forever shaking his wrists like a swimmer before a race; and on the Requiem set, Anthony Quinn shadowboxes and dances up and down—"marinating," as Gleason puts it—for half an hour before a take. Gleason stands around cracking jokes and shouting: "Let's go! Let's go!" But his directors uniformly report that when they call for action, Gleason snaps instantly into the character he is playing.

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