Billiards Digest, 1986 "Life in the Fishbowl" by: George Fels


The only worthwhile quote in the entire history of the society figure and alleged artist Andy Warhol is his generous point that everybody is entitled to 15 minutes of fame. Coinciding with the filming of “The Color of Money” here in Chicago, there has been a frantic outpour of the non-famous, getting their time-pieces in working order.


They come from far and near: Professor Grady Matthews and his buddy John Barline from Detroit. The gentle soul Howard Vickery from Ohio. David Howard from Florida. Paul Brienza, with his apparent advantage movie-star looks, all the way from California. Authentic actors from Chicago, and neighboring states. And, of course, an ample cross-section of Chicago’s best players.


As is usually the case, most went home empty, to resume lives against normal clocks. The auditions themselves were a farce. You got to play exactly one rack of multi-handed nine-ball; some waited hours for that privilege, and as it turned out, how you played made virtually no difference, because director Martin Scorsese was searching only for “a look.” Speaking roles went quickly, with Keith McCready getting the juiciest (he has been ingeniously cast as a hotshot punk). Some of the severely thinned ranks were still willing to scrap for scraps, and I was among them. But this is the tale of one who persevered and endured.


Willie Mosconi has recalled how, in the early 1930’s , it was not uncommon for his exhibitions to outdraw the Chicago Bears; games. If the two sports were still anywhere near equal, pool would have, in Chicago’s matchless Fred Bentivegna, a suitable answer to quarterback Jim McMahon.


I met Bentivegna, “The Beard”, nearly 25 years ago, when Bensinger’s moved from downtown Chicago to the city’s north side. The first thing he ever said to me was, “Play some banks?,” and I knew at once this was no ordinary mortal. After all, no white man had ever asked me that before.


Freddy is originally from Bridgeport, the same Chicago neighborhood that produced the late Mayor Richard J. Daley and generations of pols before him. It’s respectable but tough turf; some of the city’s best softball is played there, and equally important, the best Bridgeport players are as redoubtable in the customary post-game fight as they are in the softball beforehand. Fred’s banking skills made him an early cult legend in Bridgeport; the area’s only action table, except for bars, was in a social club wherein Fred conquered all. The corner hole on that table was just that – a hole, with no pocket – and the club put a metal ashtray underneath to catch the balls. Some of the finest players in town had fallen to Fritz on that box by the time he was 18. It is uncertain whether they were driven bonkers by the unending “CLANG!,” or overly concerned for the 50 to 60 bare knuckles that would probably greet them if they won in that club, but there you are.


So great was Fred’s devotion to bank pool back then that he could scarcely make any other kind of shot. The only time you were in trouble, playing him in nine-ball or straight pool, was when you left him an open path to a rail, and he did not figure to run too many balls doing that. Even on his straight-iin shots, Freddy delighted in driving the object ball into the rail anyway. We took up one-pocket at about the same time, and what a wonderful fellow apprentice he was for a few years. I was Christmas’ Little Drummer Boy, and Freddy B. was my present and drum at the same time.


Yet, by the early ‘70s, Fed had not only caught up with me, but left me considerably in his wake.(I punished him by letting him win very little of his money back.) As he was taking his game to the tournament level, he seemed to become more and more comfortable with the attention paid him, too. He and his pal Jim “Peaches” Rochford are probably the best storytellers on the Chicago pool scene in the last 30 years, with excellent eyes for detail, ears for inflection and near-professional timing.


So, by the time Fred tracked down the casting director for the “Hustler” sequel, he was quite ready to take over the entire film. They liked the way he read well enough(all pool players were given the same script to see if they could, in fact, read, and maybe even think, too); and as a bonus he rewrote their dialogue on the spot and prepared to consult, light, cast, produce, direct, and edit, as well. He immediately began rehearsing various awards acceptance speeches.


As the auditions approached, I interrupted every gambling conversation I heard to offer the best bet of 1986. Freddy’s pants normally hang perilously at the refrigerator-repairman level, and I told everybody to get down heavy that at 2 p.m. on January 3 (the prescribed time for the auditions), Fred’s butt would not be visible in the slightest. And he didn’t let me down. As he lounged about in designer jeans, and even a professional beard trim, my alter ego, Jack Gunne, go off the line-of-the-day, “Freddy!” he shouted across the nervous room, “I bet a hundred the crack wouldn’t show. I took it down!”


Almost everybody left those awful auditions broken-hearted. Brienza flew in from Sacramento on his own dime, and even hired a limo, so he could get a 20-second chance. Chicago’s Tom Karabotsos suffered the added indignity of a flat tire in sub-zero weather. And they turned Freddy down, too. “for the last 26 years, Freddy’s been out every single Friday night,” Jack Gunne later told the casting director, “but after your casting call, Freddy went home.”


But some men just won’t stay down. Freddy captured the ear and other olfactories of technical advisor Mike Sigel, and landed one more interview with director Martin Scorsese. “Martin,” Fred reports he said, “Suppose they had a film festival of Italian directors from the Lower East Side, and you weren’t included.” (Fred’s exceptional smarts are showing here; Scorsese is really from the Queens/Brooklyn line, but it’s much more flattering to claim association with the Lower East Side.)


“It’s that bad, Fred?”


“It’s that bad, Martin.”


Another version of the same scene has Fed on both knees; but no matter, in he is, an extra in a bar scene. He is very proud of having improvised a look at a woman’s buns as she walks past. As the great acting teacher Stanislavsky said, there are no small parts. You should catch this one if you want to see a real live charismatic pool player, dong what a real pool player would do. Tossed in with a tepid story line and a lack of true conflicts such as existed in its marvelous predecessor, this may be one of the brightest highlights “The Color of Money” has to offer.


-George Fels, 1986 reprinting courtesy of Billiards Digest