All the pool shots in the movie are performed by the actors themselves (Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason) except one: the massé shot (cue ball sends two object balls into the same pocket), performed by Willie Mosconi.
Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason established a friendship on the set. At one point, Newman got a little cocky about his newfound pool skills and challenged the much more experienced Gleason to a $50 bet on a game. Newman broke, then it was Gleason's turn. He knocked all 15 balls in and Newman never got another shot. Gleason recalled that the next day Newman paid him off with 5000 pennies.
Piper Laurie didn't make another film for the next 15 years, devoting the time to her marriage and raising her only daughter. She returned to the screen in Carrie (1976), earning her second Oscar nomination.
According to editor Dede Allen, an entire scene from this film was omitted after much deliberation between Allen and her director Robert Rossen. Even though both agreed that the scene, an impassioned speech by Paul Newman in the pool room, was possibly the best part of his entire performance, they had to throw it out because "...it didn't move the story." Newman, though Oscar-nominated, later claimed that the deleted scene most likely cost him the Academy Award.
Paul Newman had never held a pool cue before he landed the role of Fast Eddie Felson. He took out the dining room table from his home and installed a pool table so he could spend every waking hour practicing and polishing up his skills.
George C. Scott refused his Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category because he didn't believe in actors competing against each other unless they were playing the exact same role. But when he lost the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to George Chakiris in West Side Story (1961), it essentially started for good the actor's longstanding feud with the Academy over the fact that political decisions were involved in the choice of who won. This ultimately led to Scott rejecting the Oscar he won in 1970 for his performance in Patton (1970).
During the filming, one of the production days happened to fall on St. Patrick's Day. Prior to Jackie Gleason's arrival to the shoot at the pool hall, the lighting crew took out all the clear gels, and replaced them with green ones. Upon seeing this, Gleason was so impressed he said, "Boys! This looks beautiful! Take the rest of the day off!". He left, and production was shut down for that day!
Piper Laurie did become friendly with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward during shooting. At first, she was a little intimidated by his looks. The cast had two full weeks of rehearsal, and on the first day of script table work, Laurie said she found it hard to look at him. She soon got over that, however, and found him extremely easy to work with and to be around.
There's a misconception that the character Minnesota Fats is based on the real Minnesota Fats (Rudolf Wanderone Jr.). Actually, the character appeared in the book and the film before Wanderone, who up until this time had called himself "New York Fats", appropriated the name.
When Fast Eddie prepares for his first matchup against Minnesota Fats, his manager sits down in front of a poster depicting Willie Mosconi, 14-time world champion in billiards from 1941 to 1957. About ten minutes later, Willie himself makes a cameo as the guy who holds onto the bet money. His character name is also Willie.
The picture was shot by Eugen Schüfftan, who had invented an optical effects process that employed mirrors to create backgrounds. According to crew reports, many of the pool room shots employed this process to varying degrees. The picture was also shot in CinemaScope, a wide-screen process usually reserved for big epics and action pictures.
Piper Laurie kept mostly to herself during shooting. "It was just a working set," she recalled. "Just intense work- not particularly fun at all. I never met Jackie Gleason, although I visited the poolroom. It was fun to meet George C. Scott. It was really just a working set- some fun, some anger."
The great pool legend Willie Mosconi was brought in as technical adviser and stand-in for the actors (particularly Paul Newman) in the tougher pool shots. Crew members have noted how Mosconi was similar to the Minnesota Fats character as written: well-dressed, fastidious, a player who brought a deep concentration to the game. Other than seeing his hands making some of the shots, Mosconi appears in the picture as the guy who holds the stakes in the contest between Eddie and Fats. Assistant director Ulu Grosbard said that watching Mosconi in action was "like watching a great violinist or great cellist. There was nothing he couldn't do once he went to work on that pool table."
Piper Laurie learned how modest and unassuming Paul Newman was. "He really didn't believe in himself as an actor at all. He thought he had great limitations, and owed everything to other people- the Actors Studio, Joanne- he seemed not to take credit for himself."
Prior to the premiere, Richard Burton hosted a midnight screening for the casts of various Broadway shows. This generated a lot of positive word of mouth, forcing 20th Century Fox - who hadn't been actively promoting the film - to step up their promotional activities.
To achieve Sarah's limp, Piper Laurie first experimented with walking around with pebbles in her shoes. "Finally, I just did it without anything, because Rossen didn't want an obvious limp; he didn't want it consistent because he felt he wanted the audience to be aware of it sometimes and not other times."
An aficionado of acting, George C. Scott told interviewer Lawrence Grobel in his December 1980 "Playboy" magazine interview that his The Hustler (1961) co-star Paul Newman's performance in that film was nothing special (both actors were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances). However, he found Newman's performance as the eponymous Hud (1963) to be a superb piece of acting.
Later, people would ask Piper Laurie what George C. Scott had whispered to her in one scene, but she didn't know-whatever he'd whispered was too faint for her to hear. So she asked him. Scott said, "You know, I never really said anything. I figured anything that I said would not be as powerful as what your imagination could bring."
At least some of the film was shot on location in Louisville, KY. The hotel where Eddie, Sarah & Burt check in is the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville. There are clear interior shots of its distinctive period lobby. Its other claim to fame is that it was frequented by Al Capone during the prohibition era and was also the haunt of another gangster named Rebus that F. Scott Fitzgerald modelled Gatsby on. The hotel also features in The Great Gatsby (2013).
Ulu Grosbard later noted that the interior of Sarah's apartment was built in a studio at 55th St. and 10th Ave. He said the actors' dressing rooms there were very small and, in his memory, without windows, "like cells," but that Piper Laurie furnished hers "as if she were going to live in it the rest of her life." It was Grosbard's impression that Laurie would sometimes spend the night there.
Dede Allen liked working with Robert Rossen because he was the kind of director who shot scenes from every possible angle, providing her with a wide range of cover footage that allowed for various interpretations and possibilities.
Describing the film, Robert Rossen said: "My protagonist, Fast Eddie, wants to become a great pool player, but the film is really about the obstacles he encounters in attempting to fulfill himself as a human being. He attains self-awareness only after a terrible personal tragedy which he has caused - and then he wins his pool game."
Although this movie finally gave Piper Laurie the chance to be regarded as a serious and accomplished actor, she got married shortly after and quit acting to raise her children. She didn't appear in another film until Carrie (1976).
The Hustler (1961) while nominated for many awards, lost all the major ones and the main competition at the Oscars were the films Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and West Side Story (1961) . In the scene when Eddie takes Sara out to a restaurant just before the Louisville trip, Sara has a line "I feel pretty" which, of course was the title to a major song in West Side Story.
The film was also somewhat autobiographical for Robert Rossen, relating to his dealings with the House Un-American Activities Committee. A screenwriter during the 1930s and '40s, he had been involved with the Communist Party in the 1930s and refused to name names at his first HUAC appearance. Ultimately he changed his mind and identified friends and colleagues as party members. Similarly, Felson sells his soul and betrays the one person who really knows and loves him in a Faustian pact to gain character.
20th Century Fox was hemorrhaging money because of Cleopatra (1963), and they wanted the film to be as profitable as possible (they'd already short-changed Robert Rossen on some production costs). To that end, they told Rossen to trim some of the pool-playing scenes-including the one that opens the film-as they feared female audience members wouldn't understand the game. In response, Rossen held a midnight screening for all the cast members of all the shows then playing on Broadway. Word-of-mouth from that prestigious group of thespians was so strong that Fox left the film intact and actually stepped up efforts to promote it.
The studio suggested changing the title, as "Hustler" was also a well-established (since 1924) slang term for a prostitute. One alternate title suggested was Stroke of Luck. When cooler heads prevailed, "Stroke of Luck" was added to the Kentucky Derby scene as the name of one of the horses.
Initially Paul Newman turned down the part of Fast Eddie Felson, as he was unavailable, having committed to star alongside Elizabeth Taylor in the film version of "Two for the Seesaw". Robert Rossen then offered the part to Bobby Darin. However, shooting overruns on Taylor's Cleopatra (1963) meant that she had to drop out of "Seesaw". Newman was then offered the part of Felson again; he accepted it after reading only half of the script. Nobody thought to tell Bobby Darin though, who found out from a member of the public at a charity horse race.
Except for some shots done inside Union Station in Los Angeles, the film was shot on location in New York. The scenes of Eddie's matches against Fats were done in the famous Ames Pool Hall near Times Square.
Early shooting put more focus on the pool playing, but during filming Robert Rossen made the decision to place more emphasis on the love story between Eddie and Sarah. Despite the change in emphasis, Rossen still used the various pool games to show the strengthening of Eddie's character and the evolution of his relationship to Bert and Sarah, through the positioning of the characters in the frame. For example, when Eddie is playing Findley, Eddie is positioned below Bert in a two shot but above Findley while still below Bert in a three shot. When Sarah enters the room, she is below Eddie in two shot while in a three shot Eddie is still below Bert. When Eddie is kneeling over Sarah's body, Bert again appears above him but Eddie attacks Bert, ending up on top of him. Eddie finally appears above Bert in two shot when Eddie returns to beat Fats.
Scenes that were included in the shooting script but did not make it into the final film include a scene at Ames pool hall establishing that Eddie is on his way to town (originally slated to be the first scene of the film) and a longer scene of Preacher talking to Bert at Johnny's Bar which establishes Preacher is a junkie.
Robert Rossen had been a pool hustler in his youth and even tried to write a play about it called Corner Pocket before stumbling across Walter Tevis' novel The Hustler and deciding Tevis had done a better job.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
In the first big game, Eddie uses massé to change the cue ball direction and pocket two balls on a single shot. In the final game of the movie, he does it again. This is actually the same shot filmed from different angles. Although the shot is impressive, it is very risky and would give Eddie no discernible advantage.