Caan was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance.
Axel Freed is a New York City Harvard University–educated English professor and author with a gambling addiction that begins to spiral out of control. In the classroom, Freed inspires his college students with his interpretations of Fyodor Dostoevsky's work. In his personal life, Axel has the affection of the beautiful Billie and the admiration of his family, including his mother Naomi, who is a doctor, and his grandfather, a wealthy businessman.
Unbeknownst to them, Axel's reckless gambling has left him with a huge debt. His bookie, Hips, likes the professor personally but threatens grave consequences if he does not pay up. When Billie, having been informed by Axel that he owes $44,000, questions the wisdom of her associating with him, Axel confidently tells her she loves his life's dangers, including "the possibility of blood".
After obtaining the $44,000 from his mortified mother, Axel goes with Billie to Las Vegas and gambles it into a small fortune, only to blow it all again on basketball bets. He takes out his anger on Billie, who does not appreciate having loan sharks come to their apartment in the middle of the night. Expecting help from his grandfather, Axel gets nothing but the older man's disappointment and disgust.
Axel's only way to avoid the debt is to lure one of his students, a basketball star, into accepting a bribe from Axel's creditors to shave points in a game. He does so. When the game has ended in accordance with the plan, Axel says good-night to Hips by wandering off into a black ghetto near the gymnasium where the game has been played; he ignores a warning from Hips that the area is a jungle.
Axel proceeds to lure a pimp into a life-or-death fight by refusing to pay a prostitute. As Axel beats him, nearly to death, the prostitute slashes him across the face. As Axel is leaving the scene of the fight, he studies himself in a mirror and smiles enigmatically at the blood coming from the wound.James Caan as Axel Freed
Paul Sorvino as Hips
Lauren Hutton as Billie
Morris Carnovsky as A.R. Lowenthal
Jacqueline Brookes as Naomi Freed
Burt Young as Carmine
Carmine Caridi as Jimmy
Vic Tayback as One
Steven Keats as Howie
London Lee as Monkey
M. Emmet Walsh as Las Vegas Gambler
James Woods as Bank Officer
Beatrice Winde as Hospital Receptionist
Antonio Fargas as Pimp
The film was the first produced screenplay by James Toback. Toback had worked as an English lecturer at the City College of New York and had a gambling problem. He originally wrote The Gambler as a semi-autobiographical novel but halfway through started envisioning it as a film and turned it into a screenplay. He completed it in 1972 and showed it to his friend Lucy Saroyan, who introduced Toback to Robert de Niro. Toback became enthused about the possibility of de Niro playing the lead. He showed the script to his literary agent who gave it to Mike Medavoy who attached director Karel Reisz. Reisz did not want to use de Niro and cast James Caan instead.
"Caan became a great Axel Freed, although obviously different from the character De Niro would have created," wrote Toback later.
Some see the film as a loose adaptation of the short novel The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
It was filmed at a time when leading actor James Caan was battling his own addiction to cocaine.
Caan says the film is one of his favorites. "It's not easy to make people care about a guy who steals from his mother to pay gambling debts."
In August 2011 Paramount Pictures announced a remake of the 1974 film The Gambler with the original producers, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. Intended as a new directorial project for Martin Scorsese, it was reported that Leonardo DiCaprio was attached as the star and William Monahan would write the screenplay.
In a 2011 interview, screenwriter James Toback gave the story of the original film's autobiographical background and development, and criticized the announcement of the remake.
Scorsese left the project and filmmaker Todd Phillips was in talks to take over as of August 2012. In September 2013, Mark Wahlberg and director Rupert Wyatt expressed interest in making the film. Brie Larson and Jessica Lange were under consideration to appear. The shooting of the film began on January 20, 2014. It was released on December 25, 2014.