Among the world’s greatest unresolved mysteries is the identity of the Zodiac serial killer, the location of the Bermuda Triangle, and the translation of the Voynich Manuscript. But, equally high up on that list is another perplexing mystery: Whatever happened to the 1971 billiards movie The Player?
For a while, the pursuit of this movie was a periodic topic of discussion within the most popular billiards forums, such as AZ Billiards and Inside Pool Magazine. Often, the initial thread began with the question, “Has anyone heard of this movie The Player? I’d really love to see it.” This was then followed by a bandwagon of “Me too!” or “I’m also interested” responses, before someone dropped the hammer and shared that he’s already been searching for this movie for some time and has run into nothing but dead ends.
What is the fascination with The Player? Why does this long-lost billiards movie produce such passion, craving and rumors, whereas other “missing” billiards movies, such as Lemon Tree Billiards House (1996) or Running Out (2001) evoke nary a whisper? Finally, does it still exist?
Here’s what we know: The Player, was directed and written by Thomas DeMartini, a man with no prior or posterior film credits. The main cast included Jerry Como, Rae Phillips, and Carey Wilmot, all people who again had no previous or subsequent acting experience.
But, the remaining two cast members, who played themselves in the film, were a completely different story. First, there was “Gentleman Jack” Colavita, a Tri-State straight pool champion. And then there was Rudolf Wanderone Jr., aka “Minnesota Fats,” one of the most famous pocket billiards players of that era. Though he never won a major tournament, he gained great fame in the early ‘60s by claiming the Minnesota Fats character in The Hustler was based on him. And he then parlayed that fame into a series of book deals and television appearances, including the Celebrity Billiards with Minnesota Fats game show and a guest spot on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
While there have been many billiards movies that star pool professionals (e.g., Jennifer Barretta in 9-Ball; Jimmy White in The Legend of the Dragon; Efren Reyes in Pakners; Marcello Lotti in The Pool Hustlers) The Player is the only movie that starred Minnesota Fats. Even juicier, it billed him as “The greatest pool hustler in the greatest pool movie.”
According to the Temple of Schlock’s “Endangered List,” the movie was about a down-and-out professional pool player who, struggling with his relationship, hits the road, resorts to hustling, and makes a series of bad decisions (including challenging Minnesota Fats) that only worsen his situation.
Beyond the appeal of Fats and the hustler storyline, the excitement about this billiards movie has grown because of the confusion around its release. For example, the Turner Classics Movie website mistakenly says it was released in 1972. And, within online forums, some people incorrectly argue the movie was never actually released. But, from the various first-hand testimonies I’ve read, it’s clear the movie showed at a few private screenings in 1971 and 1972 in the Southeast at theaters owned by the family of the movie’s producer, George Ogden, though it never had a mainstream release.
But here is where the story turns tragic, as it appears this billiards movie will never become viewable again, based on the investigatory work done by Craig Rittel, owner of Full Splice Billiards in Lakewood, Washington. He has done considerable research, talking to industry professionals and tracking down people involved with the film. According to his online posts (and some of my own research), we know:
- There were management problems, presumably within International Cinema, the movie’s production company, that led to the film getting shelved. International Cinema no longer exists. It was merged with RSL Entertainment in 1985 to form Alliance Entertainment, now the largest wholesale distributor of home entertainment audio and video software in the United States.
- Producer George Ogden was believed to have the original film. He passed away years ago, and the only thing found among his estate related to The Player was a framed poster.
- The Ogden Theater in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which privately screened The Player, closed in 1985.
- There is no information that can be learned from the main cast and crew members. The director Thomas DeMartini is deceased (date unknown), Minnesota Fats died in 1996, and “Gentleman Jack” Colavita died in 2005. In fact, Colavita’s son, Jack, has also unsuccessfully tried to find the film.
- Even the Jackson Mall Cinema, another of the few venues that did a private screening of the film, is no longer around. It is now a medical center.
So, that’s where the story ends…or does it? If there is a lesson to be learned from the 2012 smash documentary Searching for Sugarman about the hunt to find the singer Rodriguez, or the 2002 documentary Stone Reader, which details one person’s quest to find the author of a well-received novel from 30 years ago, it’s that maybe, just maybe, with a lot of sleuthing and a lot of luck, something seemingly gone forever will show up again one day. We can only hope.
[Periodically, I will publish posts on movies that I have been unable to find and watch. These are part of my “Wanted!” series. If you have any information about a “Wanted!” movie, please contact me. I will be most grateful.]