I'm fortunate I got to know Joseph Walsh, the screenwriter and producer of "California Split," my all-time favorite gambling movie. Walsh explained in detail how he had to battle studio executives to preserve his vision of "Split" as a movie hard-core gamblers would appreciate. The studio heads were pushing to dumb it down into a bland, formulaic Hollywood production. Luckily, Walsh had director Robert Altman and star Elliott Gould -- two real gambling men -- on his side.
They demolished the Mapes Hotel early in the year 2000, reducing the historic high-rise to a pile of debris by the Truckee River in downtown Reno.
Walking past the Virginia Street site just days after the implosion, I was moved to reach under a fence to grab a piece of the rubble for a souvenir.
The jagged chunk of brick still occupies a prime piece of real estate on my fireplace mantel, but not because I particularly care that prominent Americans such as Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and President Truman used to stay at the hotel.
Rather, the Mapes is meaningful to me as the site of the classic, climactic scenes of the 1974 comedy “California Split,” which still reigns as the ultimate gambling film.
Of course, it might be a stretch to use the word “climactic” in connection with the loosely structured character study, “California Split” screenwriter and producer Joseph Walsh was saying over breakfast at the Bellagio recently.
Unlike other Hollywood treatments of gambling, “California Split,” directed by Robert Altman, does not conclude with an Old West-style showdown between the young hotshot and the old master. There’s no world championship of anything at stake. No straight flush beating aces full.
Instead it chronicles the fledgling friendship of two gung-ho, reckless gamblers — freewheeling Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould) and strait-laced Bill Denny (George Segal) — as they try to stay in action and catch an ever-elusive winning streak.
A lifelong bettor himself, Walsh laced his script with realistic details about gambling that continue to ring true with moviegoers who are no strangers to the gritty dominion of bookies, racetracks and poker rooms.
“I was writing for all the gamblers of the world, people who are going to turn out and watch the movie and say, ‘Oh, God, this man is in our heart and soul,’ ” said Walsh, a native New Yorker who lives in Northridge, Calif.
In other words, he wanted gamblers to watch the movie and think, “Charlie Waters, c’est moi.”
Altman, a fellow gambling man who was coming off “The Long Goodbye” and “Thieves Like Us” at the time, was on board with “Split” right away, Walsh said.
Executives with Columbia Pictures weren’t such an easy sell.
Several sequences take place in Southern California card rooms, where lowball draw poker was the main game and the lingo included strange phrases such as “smooth 7” and “rough 8.”
The studio suits wanted to do away with that confusing stuff, replacing it with a dramatic hand in which four kings beat four queens.
“The answer is no,” Walsh recalled telling the execs. “What you want in this movie is what I call ‘reverse commercialism.’ You guys work overtime to dumb your movies down. Reverse commercialism means the audience is going to follow the heroes because they care what happens to them.
“They care about their experience. They don’t care if it’s tied up in a nice, neat package, whether they win or lose the big prize. I don’t have to dumb it down with four kings beating four queens.”
Even worse was a meeting with MGM executives, who wanted to spice up Walsh’s low-key, pleasantly shambling story with mobsters, gunfire, Dean Martin (!) and a big chase scene winding up at Circus Circus on the Strip.
Then there was a series of encounters with Steve McQueen, originally slated to play the Gould character. McQueen balked because he wanted to play a “hepper” role, Walsh recalled.
“First of all, I didn’t have the heart to tell him nobody had said ‘hep’ for the last 20 years,” Walsh said. “If he meant hip, well, to me the Elliott Gould character is one of the hippest of all time because he’s so real. He’s a free soul. He says what he wants, he does what he wants, he rolls with it. He’s as genuine as it gets.”
Walsh knew the negotiations were doomed when McQueen abruptly marched out, saying he had to go “buy alleyhats.”
Walsh thought: Alleyhats?
Later, he realized McQueen meant he was going to buy some new hats for his wife, Ali McGraw.
Walsh, after watching “Mean Streets,” also persuaded Altman to meet with Robert De Niro before they settled on Gould for the leading role.
Gould, a Brooklyn native, and Walsh, who grew up near 58th Street and Third Avenue, had been close friends — and sometime gambling partners — since they were teen actors in 1950s New York.
In Walsh’s latest project, a book he wrote titled “Gambler on the Loose” that he plans to adapt into a screenplay, he describes his life at the nexus of show business and gambling. (Online, visit gamblerontheloose.com.)
A child star on TV and Broadway, Walsh took up sports betting at age 17. In one memorable episode, he and Gould ran $150 into thousands by betting on football and decided to celebrate with a trip to Miami. Their hot streak unceremoniously fizzled at the greyhound track, however, when they couldn’t back a dog “even remotely interested in the rabbit.”
The catalyst to write “California Split,” Walsh said, was a meeting with a famous director — OK, it was Peter Bogdanovich — that ended badly one day in the early ’70s.
“I was getting a couple of jobs in Hollywood, but it wasn’t what I was looking for,” Walsh said. “So I go up to meet with Bogdanovich in his office, and he’s reading the paper. He points to a chair and says, ‘Tell me about yourself.’ I don’t get through the first line before the newspaper goes up in front of his face and I’m talking to the back of his newspaper.
“I’m about to punch a hole right through the newspaper and end my career in Hollywood. Instead I just walked out the door, sat down and asked myself what I knew better than anyone. And I knew so much about gambling. And nobody writes gambling well.”
Not long afterward, Walsh, Altman & Co. were ensconced at the Mapes, filming “California Split” in a faux casino constructed for the movie, and gambling in the real casino during their downtime.
The movie’s conclusion, in which Bill and Charlie part ways in the casino, was improvised by Gould — although Walsh’s scripted ending was equally ambiguous and bittersweet.
As written by Walsh, Bill and Charlie leave the Mapes and hail a cab. They pass two other guys on their way in who ask about the “action,” which draws Charlie back to the casino. Bill, getting into the cab to head for the airport, asks Charlie what he’s going to do with his life.
Charlie replies, “I’m going to take the best price I can.”
Sidebar: Top 5 gambling movies
1. “California Split” — The scene in which the characters played by Elliott Gould and George Segal make a drunken bar bet on whether they can name the Seven Dwarfs is one of several all-time classics.
2. “Deal” — Starring Burt Reynolds and Shannon Elizabeth, this gem ... Ha! Just kidding! “The Hustler” — Jackie Gleason’s best role besides Kramden.
3. “Casino” — Can’t decide which is better: the scene where “everybody’s gotta watch everybody else ... and the eye in the sky is watching us all,” or the vise sequence.
4. “The Cincinnati Kid” — OK, so the finale is highly unrealistic. Just roll with it.
5. “The Sting” — Old-time gambling figure John Scarne was an adviser for the film, and his hands are shown doing some of the card manipulation.
Las Vegas Sun, July 11, 2008