“The Color of Money” came about when Paul Newman called Scorsese about a script, convinced that the “Taxi Driver” director was the guy to help him revisit “Fast” Eddie Felson, the self-destructive pool shark he portrayed so memorably in “The Hustler.” Scorsese admired Newman and agreed that Felson was just the kind of unsympathetic character he excelled at bringing to the screen, but still wasn’t terribly interested in doing the picture. Nevertheless, he met with Newman, discovered they were on mutual ground regarding Felson, and decided to commit.
Scorsese teamed up with novelist Richard Price for the screenplay, taking the title but little else from “The Color of Money,” the book by Walter Tevis, who also wrote the original source material. With Newman also lending his input, they spent six months honing the script before they were ready to go.
The trouble was, major studios didn’t want it. 20th Century Fox passed, as did Columbia. Scorsese said (via Cinephilia & Beyond, pulling from an article by Peter Biskind and Susan Linfield, Chalk Talk, comes from an issue of American Film, November 1986.):
“I think in a case like this, given the kind of film that it is, even with Newman and Cruise—it’s not what the studios need. We are now talking about censorship in America, which is worse than the blacklist, and the kind of difficulties certain unique sensibilities have. We now have to do it with a lot of style, and very cheap, in order to get projects done. There’s no guarantee of anything in this business any more unless it’s a big epic—invading cannibals.”
That’s when Disney CEO Michael Eisner and producer Jeffrey Katzenberg snapped up the project for their newly formed Touchstone label. Scorsese, Newman, and Disney don’t seem like a great match on paper, but Price was enthusiastic:
“They were great. I’d do a pornographic movie with them. ‘Bambi Does Dallas.'”