When Roger Sharpe, a 25-year-old divorced GQ writer, stepped into the New York City Council chamber in April 1976, he had one thing on his mind: pinball. Sharpe — no pressure — needed to play so expertly that he would convince a panel of antagonistic bureaucrats it’s a game of skill, not chance, thus overturning a decades-old citywide ban. He had no idea that moment would define the rest of his life.
Sharpe has told and retold this story countless times. It’s the tale that made him a hero to the pinball community, the reason fans jostle for his autograph at conventions and even the inspiration for an oil painting titled “He Called the Shot.” Pinball, banned by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in 1941 as youth-corrupting filth, hid in backrooms in New York City until the Music & Amusement Association convinced Sharpe to conduct a live demonstration that, if not for his dexterity with the silver ball, could have gone very differently.
This may be pinball’s best-known and most-abused anecdote, especially for those, like me, who spend large portions of each day thinking about the sport (yes, darn it, it’s a sport). Any mainstream piece hoping to dazzle the reader with “X Things You Didn’t Know About Pinball!” is practically obligated to tell Sharpe’s story — and almost guaranteed to screw it up. The famous event featured in a cringey 2015 episode of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History.”
This may help explain why Sharpe felt skeptical when filmmakers Austin and Meredith Bragg approached him about telling his story on the big screen under the title “Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game.” After all, he’d already relived the moment countless times in documentaries, seminars and podcasts.
“No!” Sharpe says he told them during their first Zoom call. “Who cares about me? I’m a historical footnote!”
But the Bragg brothers had a grander plan: The film would also incorporate the charming story of how a young Sharpe (Mike Faist, with a fake mustache almost as outrageous as Sharpe’s real one) met and fell in love with his second wife, Ellen (Crystal Reed, no mustache). Instead of a niche docudrama about pinball — which is what my 11-year-old daughter feared I was dragging her to see — audiences are treated to the hilarious struggles of a sweet schlemiel struggling to Make It in the Big City, and a single mother trying to fend off gentleman callers. The movie, which debuted in select theaters and on demand earlier this month, has successfully threaded a very difficult needle, winning over Sharpe and his fellow enthusiasts by showing the human side of the game’s greatest hero.
The Braggs even wove Sharpe’s real-life reticence into the film, opening with an actor portraying the modern-day Sharpe (Dennis Boutsikaris, “Better Call Saul”) in the process of being made up and mic’d up, protesting to his interviewer, “I don’t know why you want to do this.” Boutsikaris mimicked Sharpe so perfectly that an audience member approached the actual Sharpe after a screening in the Hamptons and complimented him on his performance. “If you liked him in this,” Austin Bragg reportedly quipped, “you should see him in ‘Better Call Saul.’”
As the Sharpe character explains in the film, the villain he aims to defeat is a piece of paper in a file cabinet. By the mid-’70s, increasingly antiquated statutes kept pinball out of many major cities, even after the game had clearly evolved from a gambling device (no flippers, coin payout) to a very large, public toy.
But laws are slow to leave the books, and the Music & Amusement Association needed someone like Sharpe — an autodidact with no financial ties to the industry — to hasten the process. Sharpe’s live demo for the council culminated in a now famous single plunge that launched the ball onto the playfield and down the lit lane he pre-announced, an example so unambiguous it made a gruff councilman declare, “I’ve seen enough.” And like that, pinball became legal in New York City.
The Bragg brothers, who co-wrote and directed, had never made a feature film (disclosure: I worked with them 10 years ago on a short film about Scrabble). That they chose Sharpe as their subject says something not just about the universality of his David-and-Goliath crusade, but about their own eye for happiness in everyday life. “Our mantra was, ‘We’re making a movie about pinball. If it’s not fun, we’re doing it wrong,’” Meredith Bragg says.
Faist, lauded for his role as Riff in the recent “West Side Story” movie, saw the appeal as well. “I imagined that if Austin and Meredith were interested in what I wanted to do with Roger,” he says via email, “then I would be foolish to refuse myself the opportunity of participating in a piece that is all about not being afraid to pursue the things that make us feel good inside.”
And here is exactly where the whole project could have gone off the rails. The cast and the Braggs recognized pinball’s colorful, whimsical joy, the flashing lights, the pinging pop bumpers, all of which makes for cool cinematography. And they correctly identified Sharpe as the perfect protagonist. But if those were the only elements, they would have produced a longer, larger-budget “Drunk History.”
The pinball community knows this pain all too well. While researching my book “Pinball Wizards: Jackpots, Drains, and the Cult of the Silver Ball,” I met enthusiasts who catalogued every single appearance of pinball machines in television and film — and complained about all of them. Season 4 of “Better Call Saul,” for example, showed a German construction worker playing a pinball machine from 1992 — but dubbed with the electromechanical sounds of a much older game. Sacrilege!
I’ve watched my feed of pinball online forums and Facebook groups fill with eye-rolling when outsiders try to tackle the hobby. We’d much rather see professional players like Bowen Kerins or Keith Elwin narrate their gameplay in a tutorial video for an hour than watch another second of “Tilt,” the 1979 drama in which Brooke Shields plays a 14-year-old pinball prodigy who gets duped into a contrived grudge match against Charles Durning’s overconfident bar owner.
Sharpe himself had long lamented the depiction of pinball in the mainstream media — not just the freeze-frame inaccuracies only a true pinhead would notice, but the undeserved snark dismissing the game either as a vice for Fonzie-like greasers or as an esoteric outlet for Tommy-like obsessives. “Pinball has never been portrayed in a positive light,” he says. “It’s never been something that’s wholesome, that’s been an integral part of somebody’s life.”
“For the pinball community,” he continues, “it has been the expectation that somehow they’re not going to get it right.” So when the Braggs approached him with their idea, his reservations reflected a familiar concern: “Is the movie going to celebrate us,” he worried, “or is it going to make fun of us?”
Luckily for us fanatics, the Braggs understood and respected the community’s suspicion. “When you have loyal fan bases like this, when you have enthusiasts, for them this is their third place — you have work, home and pinball — they’re going to know right off the bat if you’re faking it,” says Austin Bragg. “That was never really an option for us.” The result was a film the New Yorker called “better than all ten of the Best Picture nominees,” which still got every last detail about pinball correct.
That makes “Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game” a bit of a unicorn. And in the days since it premiered, a community used to being pigeonholed as geeks and wizards watched it — then finally exhaled, smiled and released decades of anxiety.
Sharpe, now in his mid-70s and living in the Chicago area, is still deeply involved in pinball. His consulting firm, Sharpe Communications, helps pinball manufacturers and others in the coin-op industry secure licensing deals, and — spoiler alert — he’s still married to Ellen.
After a recent screening in Toronto, to an audience of primarily hardcore pinball enthusiasts, he jokingly apologized, “I’m sorry that it was a movie-movie.”
For once, they didn’t seem to mind.