“Jonathan Winters, Report to Heaven’s Pool Room …”

“The place is Heaven. The time is now. And the pool game we’re about to witness will take place between two gifted performers who once starred in a classic episode … of the Twilight Zone.”

It’s not hard to imagine, is it?

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Yes, the news that Jonathan Winters died today can’t help but make us feel a little sad. A man who brought laughter to millions has told his last joke. That it comes so soon after the death of Jack Klugman, his co-star in “A Game of Pool“, only magnifies our sense of loss.

But as my TZ-like opening suggests, maybe the show isn’t over. Perhaps Winters is sharing stories right now with many of the talented actors and actresses that he worked with over the years. Seeing him on a billowing cloud at the start of his Twilight Zone episode suddenly seems more fitting than ever.

Surprisingly, Winters was not the first choice for the role of Fats Brown. Topping the list: Jackie Gleason, who had starred as Minnesota Fats in the 1961 movie “The Hustler.” Gleason was already known as a comedian who could turn in an utterly believeable dramatic performance. But Jonathan Winters?

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According to the episode’s director, Buzz Kulik:

With a guy like Jack Klugman, you go out and get Jack Warden [star of TZ’s “The Lonely”] or somebody like that. However, we determined that here was this guy who was such a brilliant talent, who would bring a kind of freshness, because this was his first time as a dramatic actor.

Adding to the challenge: Winters was starring opposite an actor already well-known for dramatic roles (who would, in an ironic twist, go on to star in one of television’s great comedy series, “The Odd Couple”). Klugman had already appeared in the film version of “12 Angry Men,” in fact, and had done numerous live television dramas, including a live teleplay by Rod Serling, “The Velvet Alley”. Winters, by contrast, was best known at that time for a series of classic comedy albums. His main role on those? Sweet, tart-tongued Maude Frickert.

Yet Winters proved to be every bit Klugman’s match. A two-man show filled with sharp dialogue and a low-simmering tension,  “A Game of Pool” recalls many of that era’s film noir classics. And it works because both Klugman and Winters bring such life to writer George Clayton Johnson’s cautionary tale about the price of wanting to be the best — and what it may cost. When Winters, as Fats, tells Klugman’s Jesse Cardiff that the stakes are “life or death,” we believe it.

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Johnson was among those pleasantly surprised by how Winters rose to the material:

I was astonished at how straight he played it. I expected him to do some little take somewhere in the midst of it that would let you know that he knew that you knew about his whole schtick, and he sort of modulated down from that.

Most people who see the episode, of course, are well aware that Winters is a famous comedian, and so his turn as a serious actor surprises them. But anyone, I think, who saw the episode without knowing of his comic abilities would probably find it hard to believe he wasn’t primarily a serious actor.

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That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of humor on the set, however. Adds Buzz Kulik:

He was very anxious to do this well, and yet he was kind of embarrassed because he felt, ‘My God, here are all these professional people, this crew and cast, and here I am’. And not only did he have to work his dialogue, but he had to play pool! So whenever he’d blow a line or make a mistake, in order to cover his embarrassment, he would go on for like 10, 15 minutes, in the character, doing some of the wildest, funniest, most marvelous things you’d ever seen.

Klugman certainly enjoyed the experience. “John and I got along so beautifully,” he said, “and in between takes, he would tell jokes, and I would be cracking up on the set.”

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Winters himself was proud of the role:

It was a very good script. I was so fortunate to play Fats. They play that episode on holidays on television marathons. I have been told that it is considered one of the best of the series. I was never offered many serious roles. Always comedy because I was labeled a comedian. So when the part opened, I was very happy.

As is any Twilight Zone fan who has enjoyed this classic episode. Many people include it among their top 10 episodes. Winters is a big part of the reason why.

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Now he’s left us, perhaps to enjoy a rematch with Klugman. He’s gone, but he’s not forgotten. As Fats once said:

“As long as people talk about you, you’re not really dead. As long as they speak your name, you continue. A legend doesn’t die just because the man does.”

Amen. RIP, Mr. Winters.

Photos courtesy of Wendy BrydgeFor a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on TwitterFacebook or Pinterest. You can also sign up for email notifications of future blog posts by clicking “follow” in the upper left-hand corner of this page. Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

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About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 04/12/2013, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. This is one of my favorite episodes. Winters may not have been the first choice, but he was the perfect choice. He looked polished, like he had lived as he claimed, compared to Klugman’s Jesse, who looked and sounded like a guy who had slept in the pool hall. It’s one of those episodes where you better not miss a single line. Nice job – fitting tribute.
    D

    • So true. It’s rare that all the elements are clicking in any single episode, but this is definitely one of them. And you’re right: both actors were completely convincing. Small wonder it’s such an enduring fan-favorite.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Dan. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Man, how you two are so dang QUICK in getting these out! You both work well together, are a great team, and put out excellent commentary! I didn’t even know Mr. Winters had died!

    But, yes, it is amazing how well some comedians/iennes can act dramatically; I’ve noticed that over the years with various names, and the reverse is also true. “A Game of Pool” was an incredible episode, the two Big Dogs in there giving it their best…telling you, yeah, you better watch out what you wish for, my friend….

  3. Anybody can be fast, but fast AND good? You need a crackerjack Gal Friday to do that, and thanks to Wendy, I’m all set!

    Just think of all the other comedians who’d like to try drama (and vice versa) and never get the chance. Or lack the courage to make it happen. It’s a shame, because when it DOES happen, the results can be very entertaining.

    Thanks, Frank!

  4. When I wanted to introduce my son (11 yrs old) to TZ, I showed him “To Serve Man” and this one, “A Game of Pool.” He didn’t like “To Serve Man” — too creepy, he said! — but he really enjoyed “Game of Pool.” I hope he’ll give the series another try some day; if so, it’ll be thanks to Klugman and Winters’ performances (and, of course, GCJ’s script!)

    • No doubt. “A Game of Pool” was a good choice. “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” was the first TZ I ever saw, though it was just by the luck of the draw in reruns. That’s the great thing about an anthology series — if you don’t like one episode, there’s a good chance you’ll find one you DO like. That’s not true with a regular series.

      I appreciate the comment, Michael! Maybe your son will catch a marathon someday and get hooked. All in good time.

      • Yes, patience is the hardest part! I want him to like all the things I like *right now*! Not that that will ever happen, nor should it… but, still….!

  5. I cried when I got the CNN alert about his death, as weird as that might sound.

    I like the recollections of Klugman of their time on the set, reminds me of what Marvin Kaplan said about Winters on “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”. A genuinely good guy, who happened to be funny and a great actor.

    They don’t make them like they used to, or at least not at that level.

    • Not weird at all. Sure, celebrities are strangers, but a different type. We welcome them into our homes via our TVs, and read about them in magazines and newspapers. After a while, they can seem like family members.

      And yes, Winters always struck me as a good guy too. He didn’t go off and write jokes per se; he was a funny man with a quick mind and a big heart. A truly original talent.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. A wonderful tribute to the man who gave one of TZ’s finest performances, Boss. Winters played Fats beautifully, and I can’t imagine anyone else in this role.

    Winters wasn’t a comedian that I was very familiar with (my only knowledge of him came from an episode of Scooby Doo!), so I can confirm what you said — watching this episode I do have a difficult time believing that serious acting wasn’t his primary job. “A Game of Pool” certainly proved he had the ability and talent to do it.

    But it’s such drudgery rewatching TZs to find great pics for your posts, Boss. ;-] Completely kidding, of course! Once again, I was more than happy to help with this post. And although this is one of my least favourite episodes of The Twilight Zone, Winters had a face so full of character that finding pics was a real pleasure. And I couldn’t wait to see which ones you decided on. Happy to report that you picked all the ones I liked best. But I’m not surprised. ;)

    • Granted I was a kid, but I do remember really enjoying his work on “Mork & Mindy.” I think he was brought in in the last years as a ratings-savings stunt, but, as I recall, he gave it his all and was hysterical. If it weren’t for Zone and Mork, I’d probably know nothing of him to this day, sad to say.

      • He was a great improvisational comic who was hugely influential with Robin Williams and many other comedians. He did a lot of TV work (including his own show, once in the ’50s, then again in the late ’60s), and a few movies (“It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” for example), but a lot of his work is hard to find.

    • *tips hats* ;) Thank you, gracious lady, both for the comment and for making this post shine with your pics. You always go the extra mile (and then some). Makes me very proud to hit “publish” when we’re finished!

      I know you’re not as much of a fan of this episode as I am, but you’ve zeroed in on one of the reasons I think it’s hailed by so many fans. TZ had a way of bringing out the best in all the people who worked on it, and seeing Winters act so convincingly against type proves it. Plus, as you note, he had a very interesting, expressive face.

      I do have one complaint about your pics: Having so many great shots makes it very difficult to pick the ones I’ll use. You often make me wish I’d written a longer post, merely as an excuse to work them all in! :D

      Great work, Gal Friday.

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