Posts Tagged ‘The Hustler’

Bowling, Tim Matheson, and “Dreamer”

Sunday, May 14th, 2017

“You just dream about something, that’s all it’s ever gonna be.  Just a dream.”

So says Harold Nuttingham in the 1979 film Dreamer, a post-Watergate, feel-good movie with a down-to-earth vibe.

Nottingham dreams of being a bowling champion—hence, his nickname “Dreamer”—but he can’t even get a PBA membership until he storms an executive meeting, proves his credentials, and demands inclusion in bowling’s upper echelon.  His statement about dreams targets father figure Harry White, a former PBA bowler who never quite reached the level of excellence that Dreamer envisions—and is capable of achieving.  Dreamer’s words nudge Harry towards buying an option for them on an 18-lane establishment with a coffee shop and a bar in Peoria.

Dreamer’s car broke down in Alton, Illinois two years before, creating an opportunity for him to work at the Bowl Haven, where he practices his game; Harry runs the pro shop.  Repairing the bowling racks is among Dreamer’s duties.  Tragically, Harry dies of a heart attack late at night, while bowling; he had a heart condition, so the news is not surprising to Dreamer.

Tim Matheson plays Dreamer, Jack Warden plays Harry, and Susan Blakely plays Dreamer’s girlfriend—Karen Lee, who also works at the bowling alley, as a cashier.  “Debra Winger rocked her audition, but the studio decided on Susan,” explains Matheson.

Bowling icon Dick Weber plays Johnny Watkin, Dreamer’s opponent in the film’s climactic match.  Matheson reveals, “Dick Weber was instrumental in helping me with my bowling.  He showed me ways to patch up my thumb until my calluses healed.  We also worked on creating a style that was interesting visually and looked real.

“I was in a bowling league in Burbank.  At the Grand Central Bowl in Glendale, I kept score for bowlers.  You could make 10 bucks a night, which was a decent amount of money.  So, I was very comfortable in that world.  For the movie, we bowled in an old alley in St. Louis.  I averaged around 165-170.  My highest was 199.  One day, we’re shooting a sequence and I’m keeping score consecutively with the takes.  My score was 224.

“Dick told us about the tricks that bowlers used.  They soaked balls in solvent that would soften the ball, so when you went to the tournament, it would react with more torque.  If you threw a ball with spin, it spun more.  Now, there are rules preventing this from happening.

“Jack Warden was one of the great storytellers of all time.  He told us that he auditioned for John Houseman, who was directing King Lear.  He was just beginning acting, but he had a blue-collar job during the day.  He didn’t have time to change for the audition, so he went in his coveralls.  Houseman said, ‘What part do you think you’ll audition for?’  Jack responded, ‘How about this Lear guy?’

“He was full of bravado and always gave advice if you asked about a scene.  He was a great acting coach, just gold.  He was a gem.  Susan was such a pro.  So wonderful to work with.  Sexy and intense and all the good things you’ll hope for in a partner that you play so many scenes with.”

It is convenient to compare Dreamer to Rocky, which premiered during the Christmas season of 1976; the elements are there—underdog taking on the champion, mentor tutoring the underdog, love interest.  This would, however, overlook the density of emotional resonance that Rocky evoked.  Where Rocky Balboa wanted to go the distance with Apollo Creed because no fighter had accomplished that seemingly impossible task, Dreamer has unwavering confidence that he belongs in the pantheon of bowling champions, if only he gets the opportunity to prove it.

Typical for Hollywood, Dreamer concludes with the upstart winning in dramatic fashion, dethroning Watkin by one pin in the 10th frame for a final score of 245-244.  Dreamer may not have had the edge of The HustlerRocky, or The Sporting Life, but it follows the template for Hollywood’s sports films.  We want the underdog to win because they remind us of ourselves.  Who wouldn’t rather play for the Miami Sharks rather than the Dallas Knights in Any Given Sunday?  Who wouldn’t rather play with Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, Jake Taylor, and Roger Dorn on the Cleveland Indians rather than the New York Yankees in Major League?  These types of films fulfill the need to hope, allowing us to live vicariously, whether the hero is a bowler, a rugby player, or a major league pitcher.

To the extent that Dreamer has a villain, it’s the PBA, which looks askance, at least initially, at Dreamer’s qualifications.  Though not explored in depth, the confrontation between Dreamer and the PBA’s powers that be, including Watkin, represents a frustration at bureaucracy that was felt 100 years before Dreamer hit movie theaters and will be evident 100 years hence, in whatever medium audiences use to consume visual entertainment.

After the climactic game between Dreamer and Watkin, the last shot of the film shows Dreamer and Karen Lee packing up their car and listing their itinerary of bowling tournaments.  As they pull away, we see that the building behind them is the Harry White Memorial Bowl.

Taking Matheson’s portrayal of Eric “Otter” Stratton of Animal House as the archetype of a slightly arrogant character brimming with confidence, one can find levels of that personality in several of his subsequent roles, including:

  • Larry Sizemore (Burn Notice)
  • Al Donnelly (Black Sheep)
  • John Hoynes (The West Wing)
  • Harry Stadlin (Just in Time)
  • Alan Stanwyk (Fletch)

Alan Stanwyk is devious when he sets up Fletch to be the dead body in a burning car, thereby allowing him to escape to South America undetected.  John Hoynes is a political manipulator along the lines of LBJ—a Senate Majority Leader from Texas who lost the Democratic nomination to an underdog from New England and settled, uncomfortably, for being Vice President.

And yet, there is an underlying likability to these characters—they do not, in any way, exude nastiness.  Dreamer, neither, though his single-mindedness about pursuing a professional bowling career excludes Karen Lee, whom he considers to be a distraction during competitions.  This, of course, is reconciled after Harry’s death, which prompts Dreamer to realize that Karen Lee is not an appendage to his career, but a necessity to his life.

The Bowl Haven still stands today, a 24-lane escape for Altonians looking to knock down some pins.  Those of a certain age may remember the summer of 1978, when the Bowl Haven closed down for shooting.   Once owned by the Netzhammer family and built in the late 1950s, the Bowl Haven enjoys continuity to the past with Bill Netzhammer, the original owners’ son, managing the lanes that Dreamer once practiced upon.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 4, 2017.

World Series Pranks and Franks

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

As dusk anticipated relieving the sun of its duties during the twilight of October 3, 1956, Paul Newman hustled through the stage entrance of the Mansfield Theatre, an august Broadway institution on West 47th Street in Manhattan.  Before he achieved icon status in the 1961 movie The Hustler, Newman plied his acting trade in legitimate theatre and live television dramas.  But his appearance at the Mansfield did not require his thespian skills.

Newman arrived at the theatre to prepare for a prime time television appearance on I’ve Got a Secret, a game show featuring Garry Moore as host and a panel of four celebrities trying to deduce the contestant’s secret through questions and answers.  On this October night, Newman was a contestant.  His secret?  He paraded around Ebbets Field as a Harry M. Stevens vendor during Game 1 of the World Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees earlier that afternoon.  And he sold a hot dog to panelist Henry Morgan without Morgan realizing his identity.

After Morgan surrendered his guessing, Moore encouraged Newman to go offstage.  Then, he followed with a description of the prank:  “Henry, we not only knew that you went to the World Series ball game this afternoon.  We even contrived to have a friend call you up and invite you to go to the ball game.  We knew what seats you were sitting in.  We knew exactly where you were.  Through the good offices of Sports Illustrated, we did have a photographer out there taking pictures from time to time.  But you don’t remember the occasion.  Paul, are you ready?  Maybe you’ll recognize him better this way.  Paul, come out!”

Newman returned in his vendor garb, shouting a familiar refrain with heavy Brooklynese in his voice:  “Get your hot franks here, ladies and gentlemen!  Get your hot franks!”  Morgan replied, “I didn’t know that you looked so ordinary!”  He then certified Newman’s Ebbets Field presence.

Morgan:  “Weren’t you the one that we had all the trouble with?  You waited on like fifty people?”

Newman:  “Yes.”

Morgan:  “And we were screaming and yelling.”

Newman:  “I understand that you were very irritated because you were very hungry and didn’t have any breakfast.”

Morgan:  “You were there.”

Going incognito as an Ebbets Field held an inherent risk of recognition.  Newman built an extensive résumé with credits including a breakthrough role as Middleweight Champion Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me, a film that premiered during the summer of ’56.  Additionally, a week prior to the Ebbets Field charade, Newman starred in The United States Steel Hour television adaptation of Bang the Drum Slowly, the second book in Mark Harris’s literary quartet of baseball fiction featuring pitcher Henry Wiggum.

After the secret’s revelation, Newman admitted that he was “terribly nervous” in carrying out the hoax.  But his commitment to the role would have made Thespis beam with pride—he sold dozens of hot dogs to unsuspecting fans!

Morgan remarked that Game 1 was “some game!”  Newman exclaimed, “I didn’t see any of the game!”

The Dodgers beat the Yankees 6-3.  Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, Gil Hodges, and Jackie Robinson went yard.  Mantle’s dinger knocked in two runs for the Yanks; it was the Oklahoma-bred slugger’s only hit for the day.  Enos Slaughter went 3 for 5 and scored on the Mantle home run.  Martin’s was a solo shot and also his only hit.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 1, 2013.

Paul Newman’s World Series Pranks and Franks

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

As dusk anticipated relieving the sun of its duties during the twilight of October 3, 1956, Paul Newman hustled through the stage entrance of the Mansfield Theatre, an august Broadway institution on West 47th Street in Manhattan.  Yes, that Paul Newman.

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