Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Quantum Leap -- Episode 26: Pool Hall Blues

Sam Leaps Into: 
Charlie "Black Magic" Walters, a legendary pool player.

Beat a brash challenger in a game of pool and win his granddaughter's loan marker, thereby saving her blues club.


Chicago, Illinois

Memorable Quote:
Al, look, my eyes may be fine, but I couldn't shoot a game of pool with a shotgun.   ~Sam

The final shot.  When I was a kid I used to practice this shot whenever I had a chance to play pool as a result of watching this episode.


Other thoughts, observations, and questions I didn’t ask when I was in fourth grade:
  • The pool players mentioned in this episode have outstanding nicknames, including Machine Gun Butler, Teddy Fantastic, Billy Blue Lightning, and of course Charlie Black Magic Walters. We don't make nicknames in today's day and age like we used to.
  • Some fantastic characters in this episode including Grady, Violet, and Eddie, and the acting is phenomenal.  Grady is a memorable and loyal sidekick, and Eddie is without a doubt one of the series' best antagonists.
  • And of course let's not forget Alberta, the world famous cue stick, who Al describes as "21 ounces of pure African ebony inlaid with mother of pearl."
  • Great touch to have Al's back story intersect with Magic.
  • One of my favorite moments: Eddie boasting with a smile, "Magic?  Tomorrow," followed by him pocketing two balls with an incredible shot that has a ton of spin.
  • I love me some good blues music, and this episode has some great tunes.  And I love the scene where Violet is playing the piano while Sam is practicing pool in the empty sunlit club.
  • Awesome moment when Al first lights up the table with his beam and Sam has a look of wonder.  While the beam would undoubtedly help, you'd still have to execute the shot, and I would certainly need more than a light beam to beat a world class pool player.
  • 9 ball is way cooler than 8 ball.
  • The energy drain (from the Pentagon usurping the power supply) right at the end of the match is a brilliant plot point.
  • "He shouldn't have done that to Alberta." ~Sam after he beats up Eddie's big goon.  No way that the goon would show his face in the club after that.  

Randy Holland, episode writer

NS: How did you first get started or approached to write for Quantum Leap?

RH: The brother of an ex-girlfriend of mine was a writer on Q.L. (Paul Brown) and I sent him a script.  I had a baby coming and needed work.  Months went by and i heard nothing from Paul and forgot about it.  Then my wife was due to deliver in a week, and guess what, out of the blue Paul called and asked if I wanted to come in and pitch some stories, So I did and that led to a job as Story Editor and “Pool Hall Blues.”

The Bellasarios said - “We like your story, can you write it in three weeks?"  Sure, I said.  I go home to write and my wife comes in and says “My water just broke!” Off we rush to the hospital to have the baby.  P.S. I got the show written in the time frame.

NS: Where did the idea come from for this episode?  Did you have a lot of experience playing pool or in pool halls?

RH: Yes, I was shooting a lot of pool at the time. Also I had an interest in racial discrimination through work in the journalism field.

NS: Is there a story behind the name "Alberta?"

RH: Alberta was a take off on the name of B.B. King’s guitar, Lucille.

NS: What was your inspiration for the characters?

RH: Through a series of events I was well acquainted with the people and places (Chicago South Side) depicted in the show.

NS: I love the scene at the end where the power goes out and Sam has to make the three rail shot on his own. What do you remember about that final scene?

RH: There was a whole lot of laser special effects going on that was the genius of some tech person. The shot itself I’d seen done by a legendary guy named Rags Woods.  Robert "Rags" Woods appears in this episode as Magic when Sam looks in the mirror.

NS: Do you have any other interesting memories or stories about this episode?

RH: I loved working on that show.  Great bunch of people. I’m grateful to Don and his wife and Paul for giving me the “shot.”  Also, I thought the director, Joe Napolitano, did a beautiful job bringing the pages to life. And you couldn’t ask for better actors.

One other funny thing - when I went in to pitch I had three stories worked out and told them all in a nutshell.  Then Don said  “Which one do we want to do?”  Which of course meant a “Yes!” to me getting work.  And remember I had a baby coming.  I was so excited that when I got up to leave I walked into the closet instead of out the door. Got a big laugh and a job!

Final Analysis:
Well, here we are!  This was my #1 favorite episode as a kid.  I hadn't seen it in a long time, and after watching it again was it as great as I remembered?  As Col. Nathan R. Jessup would say, "You're g**--d*** right it was!"

Seriously, this episode is one of the most glorious hours of television you will ever see.  From the characters to the acting to the music to the brilliant plot to the dramatic ending, this is as good as it gets.  And I haven't even mentioned the setting yet -- there's really no cooler or more fun locale for an episode of Quantum Leap than this 1950's blues club.  Even the title is perfect. This episode really sparked my imagination as a kid, though sadly I never quite made it as a professional pool player.

If you haven't guessed it already, this is my #1 episode, and it will likely stay that way throughout the rest of my series rewatch.  There are still at least 4 more episodes that I remember and that will make my top 5, one in particular that could challenge this one for the throne.  But just like Black Magic, this episode is hard to beat.


  1. That shot at the end is my fave scene (or one of the Top 5 for sure). We had a billiard table in the basement of my parents' house (grandfather bought it from a pool hall that closed down), so we had lots of opportunities to practice that shot. Even years after the episode, I'd go in and set it up. Granted, making the shot got considerably harder when the rubber bumpers started falling off the edges of the table.

    1. That's awesome. I actually taught my nephews that shot a few months ago -- it lives on.

  2. We had a harder time playing 9-ball though b/c we didn't have the right rack. Also, pocketing the balls in numerical order is a pain in the butt. We played a lot of 8-ball though. And we had to shoot around obstacles such as bookcases, stereos and computers. =)

  3. I really liked this one too. It had a real energy to it and plenty of good characters exchanging fun, well-acted banter. I didn't love it quite as much as you because the whole variation of the "Karate Kid/you can do it if you believe in yourself" meme is a bit trite, but that didn't take away from the enjoyment. I thought Ziggy's invisible laser was a cool way of turning Sam into a pool pro overnight, although when the light went out it seems pretty far-fetched that Sam would be able to stall for that long until he got Ziggy's energy back. The final shot was indeed incredible and it was fun to watch in the same way the "Karate Kid" is (sorry for that metaphor but that's the movie that always comes to mind whenever there's a trope about a sporting event where an amateur finds his inspiration to school the professionals after practicing for 11 minutes). You left us in suspense said you practiced that shot as a kid but never said if you made it! And I don't know a ton about pool but have never heard of "9-ball" before.

    Some of the things I really liked about this episode was the blues club atmosphere you described, and the respect that the old-timers clearly had for "Black Magic". I also liked "Alberta" and was interested in finding out in your interview (great stuff as always) that the name was inspired by B.B. King's "Lucille". I really loved how Sam/Black Magic laid down the smack on Eddie's thug after he broke Alberta in half, even though I'm always a little dubious about Sam's ability to overpower people in fistfights because he doesn't seem like someone for whom that would come naturally. But am I right that he has some karate training in his background? What episode did that come up in before?

    But my favorite part of the episode and the character of Sam is his almost childlike naivete and idealism when it comes to overcoming the culture of his time on behalf of doing what's right. We saw it when he insisted on taking the injured black girl in "The Color of Truth" to the whites-only hospital....we saw a few times with "Jimmy"...and we saw it prominently again when he insisted on giving one more try to secure a loan for Violet from the bank for her club, unwilling to accept that racism will get in the way if he just explains himself right. His naivete and idealism makes MacGyver look like Jack Bauer by comparison, and it's an endearing character trait in that no matter how many times the real world teaches him a lesson, he never gets cynical. I'd probably rate this one #4.

    Not sure if you're aware but just as I'm writing this, Stephen Colbert did a skit in a taxicab with Scott Bakula reprising his role as Sam Beckett with a cigar-smoking Colbert playing Al in the passenger seat, trying to get Sam to change the past and put a young passenger named Donald Trump in the back of the cab on track. It was pretty clever.

    1. I know you were asking Nick... but I did make that shot - several times. =) But I missed a lot too.

      9-Ball uses 9 of the 16 playable balls, racked in a diamond shape for the break; then the players have to pocket them in numerical order. There are other rules during play that determine if your shot is 'fair' or not, but I don't know all of them b/c I never played 9-ball. We always played 8-ball or straight pool.
      (in the right place this time)

    2. Were you a really prolific pool player since you've made that shot so many times? Is it considered the hardest shot in the game? Thanks for clarifying about 9-ball. I liked 8-ball the best but getting the balls in the pockets in order sounds fair.

    3. Nah - we just set it up and shot it. It's not a shot that I've seen come up in billiards that often. We just saw it in the episode and set it up on the table to see if they were full of crap with the layout of the lasers or not. Turns out, nope, it was legit and you can ttly do it that way.

    4. Glad both you and H2 enjoyed my #1 episode! As for Sam's martial arts skills, Al tells him at the end of Another Mother that he is skilled in several different disciplines, and his fighting ability often comes into play later in the series.

      I like your point about Sam's idealism -- hadn't thought of it that way before.

      As for that shot, it's probably not as hard as it might look (there are a lot harder shots out there). Once you figure out where to aim, you're just aiming at a particular spot on the first rail and then physics takes over. Like Highlander, I made it several times but certainly missed it way more than I made it.

      In some ways 9 ball is unfair in that one player can make the first 8 balls but then the other player can sink the 9 and win -- in fact they mention this in the episode and how it's a "lucky man's game." But I like it because I like the concept of being made to hit one particular ball, and it forces you to have to hit some tough and creative shots instead of 8 ball where early on you can just pick the easiest shot you have.

    5. And I had seen that Colbert/Bakula skit a few weeks ago (if it was on tonight it must have been a rerun). I liked Colbert's handheld computer that looked like it was made out of legos.

  4. After I posted that I recalled Sam's fighting skills came up in "Another Mother". My folks used to have a really crappy pool table in their basement but it was uneven so you'd break the triangle of balls, they'd separate, and often come rolling back to the center. Needless to say, I never used it much. Didn't realize Colbert was a rerun last night but it was a fun skit.

  5. QL Mom here. I know that this is Nick's favorite episode. It is a beautifully choreographed story. I am always drawn to episodes that develop the friendship and history of Sam and Al. Dad watched this with me and he recognized the actress who played Violet. She was in Coming to America with Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall. If you have not see it, consider renting it.

    1. Glad you and Dad were able to watch this one together. I haven't seen Coming to America but I will add that to my list.