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Muhammad Ali: The Actor

Hollywood, California – Up on the Sunset Strip, the giant billboards march from Hollywood to Beverly Hills. They average 1,200 square feet in size – gigantic outdoor pop art monuments to Donna Summers and the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton and “Grease."

They rent for upwards of $5,000 a month, and no doubt are worth it: show business executives on their daily commute from Bel Air to beautiful downtown Burbank are confronted twice a day by the current superstars.

One of the biggest billboards displays two of the most famous faces of the 20th Century. Its letters are three feet high: “Muhammad Ali in Hollywood’s Tribute to Sir Charles Chaplin.”

The event, we learn, will be held September 29th in the Masonic Auditorium. On the left is a little Tramp with a bowler hat and a mustache, gazing curiously across 40 feet of billboard. On the right is Muhammad Ali, smiling perhaps at his top billing, looking straight ahead, staring those Hollywood executives in the eye.

Prizefighters have gone into show business before. We think of Rocky Graziano, of Sugar Ray Robinson, of Joe Louis as a Las Vegas greeter. No fighter has been richer or more famous - or better, many would say - than Muhammad Ali. His entrance into show business is likely to be on an altogether different scale than anything we’ve seen before.

Ali has, of course, done a lot of performing already, warming up in his early years with wild ad libs and impromptu comic poetry before his big fights, and then graduating to Dean Martin celebrity roasts, surprise appearances on the Academy Awards, bizarre conversions with Howard Cosell, and an autobiographical movie called “The Greatest.” But show business has been second with him, up to now: something to do between fights, a way to engage his high humor and popularity.

Now he may be ready to switch arenas. The return match with Leon Spinks, he hints, may be his farewell to professional fighting. A week or so after it is over, he’ll begin shooting a new movie called “Freedom Road,” and it will present a different set of challenges than “The Greatest.”

In his first film, he played himself, more or less, and the critics were more enthusiastic about him than about the moderately successful film. (Variety praised his charisma, the Hollywood Reporter called him a “natural actor,” and the Los Angeles Times prematurely predicted an Oscar nomination.)

In “Freedom Road,” based on an international best-seller by Howard Fast, he’ll play a black slave who fights his way into the U.S. Senate.

Can Ali carry a serious dramatic role?

He took that question on the road last May, appearing, before a rather hostile press conference at the Cannes Film Festival to announce his entry into big-time moviemaking. The journalists at Cannes were not sportswriters but film critics, and they were more than slightly dubious at Ali’s claim that he was destined to become “the black Clark Able… did I say able? Gable!”

Ali appeared at the press conference flanked by the filmmakers: Producer Zev Braun, who is a partner of Carlo Ponti and director Jan Kadar, a Czech who won the Academy Award for “A Shop On Main Street.” They would have been at home at a Cannes press conference, but Ali, the newcomer, didn’t ask them to say a word: He made himself at home, in a remarkable performance that won over the critics.

He did it with an adroit combination of humor aimed at himself, humor aimed at his audience, and descriptions of his talent, which ranged from wild hyperbole to the simple truth. He would, he said, faking humility, study hard to be an actor:

“Get me some dye for my old gray hair, put some powder on my face, give me my lines to learn… and I will be the greatest actor in the world! The others will fall! They will all fall! Robert Redford will fall! Steve McQueen will fall! Clint Eastwood will fall! They will all fall, because I am the most beautiful man in history!”

That was the hyperbole. He worked around to the simple truth: “How do I know I can be an actor? Because I’ve been acting all my life! Everything I do is an act, and the amazing thing is that people the whole world over have bought it. I’m acting now. Because I am an actor, I have been able to make millions of dollars with championship fights in countries halfway around the world where they don’t even care about boxing.”

He has, one agrees, been acting all along. His creation of the character, if you will, of Muhammad Ali stands second as an accomplishment only, to his performances in the ring. From the earliest days, when Cassius Clay was a kid from Louisville with a gift for outrageous doggerel, Ali has been manipulating our imaginations and fancies, our dislike or admiration, more successfully than any other professional athlete in history. Who is to say he cannot act?

He was modest, though about “The Greatest” (Shaw might have added he had a great deal to be modest about).

“I started that picture,” he said, “without ever having read the script. Without any idea of what I was supposed to do. They had the dialog, they had the cameras, they had the trucks with the equipment, they said it was time to start, and if they thought I could do it, I knew that I could.”

The negative reviews said the movie was a disorganized reconstruction of Ali’s life, loosely based on the facts. The positive reviews said that Ali exhibited his innate charm, his sense of timing, his ability almost to con us into liking him, or at least admiring his chutzpah. With “Freedom Road,” the challenges will be different. He will be playing a character outside himself, in a historical drama based on a modern classic and being made by world-class filmmakers. He will have to be more than himself; he will have to create a character on the screen.

What did he think, one of the journalists at Cannes asked, about the novel “Freedom Road?”

“I haven’t read it,” he said, “I don’t have time to read books. But I know the story, and I know I can make this story because I can feel it inside me.”

His response inspired the quietest and most thoughtful moment during the press conference, because it came so obviously from his heart. Then somebody broke the ice with another question: Who, they, asked him, is your favorite movie actor?

Those in the room who understood English could hear what the others missed, that Ali began to say “Billy Dee…” and almost said “Williams.” But then he caught himself: This question, he must have decided, required a change of pace for an answer.

John Wayne,” he said, and grinned, and waited for the laughter. But Muhammad Ali, approaching the end of his fighting career and standing on the brink of an important movie role, might possibly have been only half joking. Who else since the Duke, until Ali, has achieved quite such a mythic stature in our national imagination?

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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