Jackie Gleason needed no help to portray the real-life Minnesota Fats, the cutthroat pool shark he portrayed in the 1961 film who toyed with opponents before making decisive trick shots to collect from local hustlers.
The actor proved it in Augusta in 1975 while visiting the city to attend the Masters Tournament with friend and legendary pool player Willie Mosconi.
Legend has it Gleason’s skills as Hollywood’s most recognizable pool hustler were challenged at downtown Augusta’s Sports Center pool hall.
At the end of the night, the actor walked away with at least $100 and a small trophy for besting the area’s local shark, a man only known by the nickname “Dink,” in an eight ball tournament
“He truly was The Hustler,” said Bill Green, the owner of Sports Center.
Faded photographs on display in Luigi’s, the Greek and Italian restaurant next door to Sports Center, tell the story of how the night began.
Gleason, in the mood for pasta, not steak, changed his dinner plans to eat at Luigi’s instead of Augusta Country Club.
Chuck Ballas Jr., whose family has owned the restaurant since 1949, said Gleason dined with 12 to 15 girls from the June Taylor Dancers, a group Gleason featured on several of his variety TV programs.
The actor visited each table, shook hands with Chuck Ballas Sr. and even kissed Ballas Sr.’s wife, Penny.
The celebration drew the attention of local pool sharks in Sports Center next door, said Chuck Ballas Jr., who was 24 at the time and working that night.
“A couple of the local sharks made a friendly challenge,” Ballas said. “They got up, left the women here, went next door and had a little tournament. It was all in good fun.”
Green said he came over and first challenged Gleason to a 100-point game of Gin Rummy for $100.
Green said he won and then the competition turned to pool.
“We were all gambling $100 a game, which back then was a lot of money,” he said.
A crowd soon formed around the pool hall’s back tables. Green said some trick shots were done and jokes were made about Gleason’s skills in The Hustler, which tells the story of a small-time pool shark “Fast Eddie,” played by Paul Newman, and his desire to become a high-stakes hustler by beating legendary Minnesota Fats.
Some online movie sites state Mosconi, an American professional pool player from Philadelphia who won the World Straight Pool Championship 15 times between 1941 and 1957, was the technical adviser for the movie, which played a major part in the boom in the popularity of pool.
His job was to teach Newman, who had never even picked up a pool cue before filming, how to walk, talk and shoot like a real hustler. According to Mosconi, Gleason already knew his way around a billiard table, and Mosconi recommended him for the role of Minnesota Fats.
Green, who bought Sports Center in 1974 and was 26 when the actor visited, said Gleason showed why.
Gleason pulled off several trick shots to top Dink and take the tournament pot and trophy.
Green said he remembers Gleason, who died in 1987, only losing in a game of one-pocket pool, which challenges players to sink shots in specific pockets.
“He was really good,” Green said. “It was vintage Jackie Gleason.”