Eight Ball, Corner Pocket
It was one of Jonathan Winters’ best roles — and he played it straight as an arrow. Talk about The Twilight Zone.
The episode was “A Game of Pool.” It also starred Jack Klugman, who would eventually appear in four episodes (a streak matched by Burgess Meredith, another Zone veteran). Seeing Winters and Klugman act and react in this two-man, one-set show gives this episode special appeal.
Having a terrific script helps. Good Zone eps always boiled down to the writing. An intriguing story, cleverly written and engagingly acted — a formula that’s simple to understand, but hard to execute. In this case, it wasn’t Rod Serling but George Clayton Johnson (“Kick the Can,” “Nothing in the Dark,” among others) who wrote the words.
But that doesn’t mean he was wild about ALL the words that wound up in the final product.
Johnson wrote “A Game of Pool” with a different ending. In his original draft, Winters, as the late billiards great Fats Brown, wins the game. Klugman, the determined, long-practicing Jesse Cardiff, is left frustrated. He yells at the retreating figure of Fats, swearing that he’ll keep practicing — that he’ll do anything it takes to beat him someday.
But Serling wanted it to end with Jesse winning. And as Zone fans know, that’s the ending we have today.
Johnson wasn’t happy about that. He always maintained that his original ending was better. He finally got a chance to see it filmed that way in the 1980s, when the Zone was revived as a series for the first time. Was he correct?
With apologies to a great writer, I don’t think so. The ending as we have it is best.
Yes, it’s easy to say that because a) it’s tempting, as a Zone fan, to yield to Serling’s judgment, and b) we’re biased by having always seen the show with Serling’s preferred ending. But it’s more than that, I believe. Simply put, “A Game of Pool” as we have it is more of a true Twilight Zone.
Johnson’s ending lacks any kind of twist. A champion is challenged, he gives battle, he wins. The only thing making it Zone-like would be Fats materializing from limbo to make his appearance.
But with Serling’s ending, it becomes a be-careful-what-you-wish-for story, which always proved well-suited to the fate-filled Zone universe.
Take what may be the most famous Twilight Zone, “Time Enough at Last.” Burgess Meredith plays a myopic book-lover who wants nothing but time. He gets it — much to his ever-lasting regret.
In “A Game of Pool,” Jesse, too, gets his life-long wish. He beats Fats and becomes the world’s best pool player. Little did he realize it will carry a price: future would-be champs will summon him to pool halls all over and force him to defend his title — indefinitely. This can’t help but elicit a wry smile or chuckle from viewers the first time they see this episode.
“I have been told that it is considered one of the best of the series,” Winters said. Whichever ending you prefer, we can all agree on that.
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