When Morley Safer played pool with Jackie Gleason

One of 60 Minutes' most classic scenes aired this week in 1984 — but it almost never happened. Morley Safer had just finished interviewing comedian-actor Jackie Gleason, the television powerhouse of the 1950s and 1960s who lives on in reruns of "The Honeymooners." The cameras were breaking down, and Gleason started to leave. But Safer had one more question, so the cameras rolled again.

"Tell me something," Safer asked. "'The Great One.' Where did that come from?"

Morley Safer plays pool during an interview with actor and comedian Jackie Gleason, 1984. CBS News

"[That question] falls into the category of 'How We Tend to Overlook the Obvious,'" writes current 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager in his new book, Fifty Years of 60 Minutes: The Inside Story of Television's Most Influential News Broadcast.

When the story aired on October 28, 1984, Fager writes, 60 Minutes creator and then-executive producer Don Hewitt said it was the best profile 60 Minutes had ever done.

As Fager explains, producer Alan Weisman approached the story as if he were directing a film: "He wanted the interview shot at a dark, smoky bar, and he wanted Jackie Gleason lit like Don Corleone in The Godfather, with one side of his face in shadow." Safer said the atmosphere put Gleason at ease.

When the interview ended, the two played a few games of pool. In the video player above are some never-before-seen clips of those games. In a previous interview with 60 Minutes Overtime, Safer explained how one game progressed.

"I went first," he recalled. "And I did something I hadn't done for I don't know how long: I ran about six or seven balls. And Gleason thought he'd been hustled. He was looking over at 'em. And he would be angrier, angrier. And he is renowned for his temper. But I finally got so nervous, I blew the shot, the next shot. And then he just cleaned the table."

With his pool reputation reestablished, Gleason was primed for the question about his nickname.

"Well," he answered, "Orson Welles called me 'the Great One' first, and then Lucy [Lucille Ball] started to call me that, and I'm not really offended by it."

"Did you ever really believe it?" Safer asked.

"You just saw me play pool, didn't you?" Gleason said.

With that, he put down his pool cue and walked out of frame. Weisman used it to end the piece.

"You couldn't have scripted it better if you'd tried," Fager writes. 

The video above was edited by Sarah Shafer Prediger. 

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