By the time he was 21 years old, Bernard King had distinguished himself in two particular ways: pool hustling and scoring lots of points on the basketball court.
"I didn’t come from an acting background," King says. "I took one acting course in college."
A master thespian he was not, but King did co-star alongside Ernie Grunfeld on the University of Tennessee’s so-called "Bernie and Ernie Show" basketball teams of the mid-1970s. The duo averaged nearly 50 points a game for Tennessee over three seasons.
King was drafted by the New Jersey Nets in 1977. During his rookie season, he established himself as a top-10 scorer. The following season looked promising. But what would King do over the summer?
"There was a producer who was making a movie called 'Fast Break,' " King says. "And he was interested in having me go in for a reading."
King accepted the invitation and got into his car.
"That drive through the Lincoln Tunnel from New Jersey, I started visualizing myself getting that part," he says. "I started saying out loud, 'You’re gonna get this! You’re gonna GET this!' "
He arrived at a Manhattan hotel, found the reading room and got in line behind about 50 other actors. After a long wait, he read for a character named Hustler.
"Now, Hustler was a pool player," King says. "I played pool every day as a kid after basketball, and I developed very good skills in pool."
Bernard King says nothing ever came easy to him; not pool, not even basketball. He had to work hard at everything he did. As a boy, he often shot hoops alone for hours well after midnight on the courts outside the Walt Whitman projects in Brooklyn, where he grew up. He remembered those lessons of discipline and persistence when he was called back for a second read the next day. Only now, he’d be reading for two characters. And he didn’t have much time to learn his lines.
"So I stayed up all night," he says. "And on that trip back in to Manhattan the next day, I went through the same process: 'You’re gonna get this! You’re gonna get this!' Just a little bit louder, though. 'You’re gonna GET this part! You WANT it!' "
This time, he read along with only five other actors.
"And I received a call the next day, and they said that, 'You received the part,' " King recalls. "And I jumped with joy."
The Perks of LA
Bernard King was in Los Angeles the following week, joining former UCLA basketball star Michael Warren, who’d later go on to television fame as Officer Bobby Hill on "Hill Street Blues." Also in the cast was Harold Sylvester, a former Tulane player who’d embarked on a career as a character actor. King couldn’t believe his good fortune. He was put up in a Beverly Hills apartment. And there was a weekly food stipend.
"$500 a week just to eat," he says. "Now this is 1978. How much money is that today?"
Adjusting for inflation, that’s about $2,000 a week. Just for food. Or whatever one spends money on in LA. Not bad for a 21 year old. But there was even more.
"I’m driving a Mercedes-Benz convertible, which they paid for, and they paid me $25,000. What the hell? Now, I learned many years later, I made more than Al Pacino shooting 'The Godfather' first movie. Yeah," King says with a laugh.
The star of "Fast Break" was Gabe Kaplan, best known at the time for playing the title role in "Welcome Back, Kotter". And the biggest perk of all came as King relaxed in his trailer after a shoot.
"I got a knock on the door," King recalls. "Gabe was standing at the door, and he’s beaming. He’s got this big smile on his face. And he said, 'Bernard, what are you doing tonight?' And I said, 'Well, uh, I don’t have any plans.' He said, 'We’re gonna go out tonight. I’ll come by and pick you up, and we’ll go out and have a good time together.' I didn’t bother asking him where he was going, or where we were going. I just knew that this was going to be a fun night. He’s a huge star, everybody knows him, we’re in Hollywood. We must be going someplace special."
Kaplan came by and picked King up at the appointed hour of 8:00 p.m.
"And I go downstairs, and he’s sitting in this shiny, black Rolls-Royce convertible," King says. "I said, 'Life must be good for Gabe Kaplan.' And I got in the car, and I said, 'Gabe, where are we going?' He said, 'We’re going to the Playboy Mansion.' I said, 'What?' 'We’re going to the Playboy Mansion.'
"We arrive at the Mansion. All kinds of thoughts are going through my head. We pull up in the cobblestone driveway, and we’re greeted and our name is on the guest list. So we’re escorted in. And the music’s pumping, you have all these beautiful women walking all around the place, and wow."
King and Kaplan went and found seats inside.
"And a gentleman came over and asked Gabe his name," King explains. "And Gabe politely said, 'Gabe Kaplan.' And I, in the meantime, noticed someone across the room. I said, 'Wow, looks like she’s by herself.' "
Before King could make his way across the room, though, Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records and a music legend, appeared at the table.
"He came by the table, and he wanted to say hello to Gabe," King says. "And I decided I would rather meet the woman across the room. And we hit it off quite well. And the next thing I know, I get a little tap on my shoulder. I turned around, it’s Gabe. And Gabe said, 'Let’s go.' "
'Everyone Knows Gabe Kaplan'
At first, King was speechless. And then he found some words.
"'Gabe, are you kidding me? Let’s go? Why?' He said, 'Well, remember the gentleman who came over to the table to inquire what my name was?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Well, Berry Gordy sent him over, because Berry Gordy didn’t know who I was.' And he said, 'I was upset, because everyone, everyone, knows Gabe Kaplan! But Berry Gordy didn’t, so I didn’t want to be there anymore!' I thought 'Oh, my goodness, you have to be kidding me. We left the Playboy Mansion for that?'
"I wanted to hit him upside his head. But all I could do was just sit there quietly. Because he was kind enough to invite me, and I had to work with him the next day."
Ah, right, work. There was an actual movie to shoot between episodes of frolicsome LA fun. Including the scenes King considers his favorites from "Fast Break." Like the one in which he draws on his Brooklyn pool hustling experience and runs the table against an opponent. The scene barely needed to be edited, because King made every shot but one.
"And I remember using some slang in that scene," he says. "I said 'Solid!' And that was not in the script. And that meant, you know, 'Great, OK, wonderful!' In my neighborhood growing up, that’s what that meant: 'Solid!' And so I thought I flubbed the line, and the director said, 'No, no, I love it. We’re gonna keep that. Use it all the time when you think it should be incorporated into a scene.' So now, what, I’m producing scenes?"
Back To Basketball
Fast Break wrapped up filming in the summer of 1978. King loved that experience. But there was one problem.
"For three months, essentially, I didn’t work out," he says. "When you’re shooting a movie, and you have basketball scenes, that’s wonderful, but that’s not training. So, consequently, when I returned to the NBA following that movie, I was not in shape. And so I got off to a slow start."
But that slow start didn’t last long. King again averaged more than 20 points a game, and the New Jersey Nets made the playoffs.
"Fast Break" hit the theaters in March of 1979. Some of the reviews were good.
"I probably should have hired an agent," King says. "And I should have hired an acting coach, but I was more interested in being a great basketball player."
That choice worked out pretty well for Bernard King. He played 14 seasons in the NBA and was a four-time All-Star with the Warriors, Knicks and Bullets. King was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. He’s now a broadcaster with NBA TV and the MSG Network. Which leaves him little time to think about what Al Pacino makes per movie these days.
Read more about Bernard King's life in his new autobiography, "Game Face: A Lifetime of Hard-Earned Lessons On and Off the Basketball Court."
This segment aired on January 6, 2018.