Season Three, Episode Five
Written by: George Clayton Johnson
Directed by: Buzz Kulik
The writer stares at a blank page, frustrated that his prose might never dig as deeply into the heart as Agee's, or that his poetry not dig into the soul like Shakespeare's, and decides to either give up writing altogether or at least take another drink. The whisky boiling in his veins, he musters to courage to decide that even if he could be great, the best, he wouldn't want it anyway! Because, hey yeah, being the best is actually a curse! Uh, uh, yeah, yeah, it would be Hell!
Such a scene, one imagines, describes how George Clayton Johnson began writing his teleplay for A Game of Pool, an exploration into the nature of the quest for greatness, whether in art, business, politics or, specifically to the episode, pool. Jack Klugman plays a master cuesman, introduced ranting and raving in a sadly empty pool hall about how great he is, underappreciated too, and begging for one game against the champ that overshadows him, Fats Brown—who's, inconveniently, dead—to prove his talent. Of course, in the twilight zone, such wishes always tend to come true, and in no time Fats (Jonathan Winters, just fine) arrives, custom cue in tow, ready to give him that game. But the stakes? Life and death.
Although it's hard to imagine death as being such an adventurous wager when the appearance of a ghost has essentially proved the existence of an afterlife. But I suppose that's really neither here nor there; they play a long game during which plenty of philosophical subjects are briefly addressed; being a George Clayton Johnson episode (Nothing in the Dark, Kick the Can) there's plenty of talk about death and mortality, but the episode's central focus is on the meaning of life. "There's more to life than this pool hall," Fats advises, reproaching Klugman for having spent his entire life cooped up in that Randolph Street basement; as Klugman admits, it's been years since he went out with a girl or to a movie (incidentally, two of my favorite things to do!) The price of training for greatness has, for Klugman, who gives a marvelously bitter, insecure and desperate performance, been at the expense of what makes life worth living; in the figurative sense, he is already dead, so why not bet his life on a game?
Particularly since we've already seen, in the shot that introduces Fat, knocking the balls around up in the clouds, that Heaven has a pool table. The "game", which is actually a long series of many individual rounds (a point per ball in a three hundred point game), comes down to a single ball; it's Fats' shot, and he seems to fudge it intentionally, handing Klugman the victory by leaving him with an easy pocket-hanger. Klugman is warned that he "might win more than he bargained for"; he ignores it, but the exhortatory portent comes to pass: now the cosmic billiards champion, though no one is present to see it, Klugman is left as he was at the episode's beginning—entirely alone, talking to the walls and the hanging portraits. For Fats, the loss is liberating, and, as Serling lets us know in the closing narration, he has gone fishing. (In heaven?) Klugman, however, is bound to take over Fats' undesirable old job (after his death, presumably years later), to forever protect his title against all the young chumps begging for a game against the best.
Being the champion, according to A Game of Pool, isn't all that it's cracked up to be; in fact, as Fats mentions in the dialogue during the game, people need champions more than they need to be them so that they have something superior to measure themselves against, something to inspire them to work harder. (Sounds like capitalist propaganda!) But according to Marc Scott Zicree's The Twilight Zone Companion, an essential resource for any fan and particularly this project, the televised ending was not Johnson's; in his original finale, which he preferred, Klugman loses the game and Fats, rather than take his life, damns him to an existence of more vain practice and, finally, death in meaningless obscurity. "If you'd beaten me," Fats gloats in the unfilmed script, "you'd have lived forever." Philosophically it's a tremendously different ending, and not just a small matter of taste as Zicree suggests, that would require a good deal of alteration in the tautly scripted episode, thusly making it difficult to know for sure what parts of the script ought to actually be ascribed to Johnson. His ending is much harsher than the one that aired in which, though Klugman is sympathetically damned (in heaven?), the audience has been freed to not worry so much about being the best bar none, just the best you can be. Anyhow, as it often works out, today's mediocrity is tomorrow's legend.
But for Johnson, according to his original, unaltered script, being the best really is all that it's cracked-up to be. "There are certain satisfactions" to being the best, Fats admits during the game, to having your picture on the wall of Clancy's Poolroom. After the writer's rant regarding the undesirability of supremacy, his confidence wanes, and he slumps at the desk. All I want, he moans, is to be remembered in greatness. As it stands, George Clayton Johnson, talent though he was, has merely, regrettably faded away.
For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 3 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVD Collection.