Celebrity is a curious thing. Once an otherwise ordinary man or woman has managed to achieve a certain level of fame due to talent, drive, hard work, and/or the vagaries of timing and luck, that person is elevated to the exalted state of a "celebrity." The public persona -- the image -- then takes over, exerting a strange magnetism on the rest of the populace who yearn to be in the presence of celebrities, to see them up close, and if possible, speak with them one-on-one. It's as if they believe some of that precious stardust will rub off on them … and maybe it does. A mysterious but undeniable exchange of energy takes place during encounters between civilians and celebrities, and however ephemeral that may be, it feels very real at the time.
People don't forget those moments.
There's long been a symbiotic relationship between celebrities and Hollywood. In harnessing the star power of those in the public eye to draw a paying audience, the Industry reaps fatter profits while enhancing the public standing of those celebrities -- a win-win for all concerned.
Up to a point, anyway. The film career of Elvis Presley offers a cautionary tale on the dangers of riding the Hollywood tiger, and the risk of diluting a celebrity's personal brand through overexposure in crappy movies. A lesser star’s career might have gone straight down the toilet after such questionable choices, but Elvis was blessed to occupy a singular niche in the heart of his fans and our culture, allowing him to survive and prosper despite starring in such forgettable films.
But then came the Las Vegas years, those god-awful white leather pantsuits, and The King's ignominious demise while sitting on the john. How the mighty have fallen, indeed.
Given that many film and television stars achieve celebrity status, we who work on set inevitably rub shoulders with these celestial beings on a regular basis. It's all part of the Hollywood deal. While civilians tend to get all giddy and jelly-legged when face-to-face with a celebrity, we're more blasé about the experience. This is partly out of familiarity (which does indeed breed a certain degree of contempt), but mostly from necessity -- we're there to work, not gush over the on-set talent and clamor for autographs, signed head shots, or selfies with a star.
That kind of behavior is for civilians. We have to conduct ourselves like professionals on the job.
Still, this doesn't mean we don't notice or pay attention when a celebrity walks on set. After all, we were all civilians before breaking into the Industry.
A lively discussion kicked off among my set lighting crew during our lunch hour a few years back, relating the various celebrities we'd worked with over the years, from the lowest rungs of television fame on up to major movie stars and sports legends. The consensus among most of the crew was that although some television and film stars are impressive, sports heroes were the celebrities they most enjoyed meeting.
I wasn't so sure. Although I've worked with a few sports legends on set over the years -- Terry Bradshaw, O.J. Simpson, Marcus Allen, Emmet Smith, Arnold Palmer, Evel Knievel, and Ichiro Suzuki come to mind -- it was a much bigger deal for me to work with and talk to Joseph Cotton, whose impressive body of work in movies from the 40's and 50's induced me to fall in love with film during my college years. While still in school, I got to meet Frank Capra and Jean Arthur when they visited the campus, which was a huge thrill. Years later in Hollywood, I learned that a sitcom I was about to start had cast Malcolm McDowell in a pivotal role -- the man who starred in If…, Oh Lucky Man! and A Clockwork Orange – which was very cool indeed. I didn't plan to ask for an autograph or anything so crass, but just wanted to shake his hand and tell him how much I'd enjoyed his work -- and that watching his movies when I was young helped steer me towards a career in Hollywood.
Things are always a bit tense during the first few days of rehearsals and lighting on a new show, so I waited patiently for the right moment, which finally arrived one afternoon near the end of the week when I walked out the stage door and there he was, taking a break for some fresh air. He glanced my way and nodded, then -- just as I was about to speak -- his cell phone rang. With an apologetic shrug, he answered it, and the moment passed. Ah well, no problem. Our show was scheduled for twelve episodes, so there'd be plenty of time to have that brief conversation in the weeks to come.
The next day I arrived on set to find him gone -- the producers had re-cast his role with another actor. I never learned whether they decided he wasn't right for the part after all, or if he bailed on the show for a more lucrative opportunity -- all I know for sure is that I never did get to shake the hand of Malcolm McDowell.
Such is life.
Still, I've had the opportunity to meet several actors who'd made an impression on me over the years, including Alan Alda and Suzanne Pleshette, along with an English actor few Americans would recognize -- David Warner, who blew my young high-school mind in Morgan!, yet another small but influential British movie that helped ignite my interest in film.
All of this was running through my mind while the actors vs. sports legends discussion raged on in the Gold Room, and just as I was about to make the case for actors, I remembered that amazing day in 1983 when I met Muhammed Ali… and with that, I had to concede the point, because no actor could compare to The Greatest of All Time. You really had to live through that tumultuous era to understand just what a monumental impact he had on the social, cultural, political, and pugilistic scene of the times. Ali had the personal magnetism of Jack Kennedy, the athletic prowess of Willie Mays, and the eloquence (albeit in his own uniquely audacious style) of Martin Luther King -- all that and much more wrapped into the dynamic, loquacious, and formidable presence of one of the best professional fighters of all time. 1
I had mixed feelings about the young Cassius Clay when he entered the public eye in the weeks leading up to his first bout with Sonny Liston. Clay was everything this fourteen-year-old boy had been taught an athlete shouldn't be: loud, arrogant, and boastful. Like the rest of the known world, I assumed the massive, glowering Sonny Liston -- famous for his early-round knockouts of opponents -- would beat this sassy young upstart into submission and finally shut his big mouth... but in the ring, Liston had no answer for the exceptional speed of Clay. It was a controversial fight, as was their infamous rematch fifteen months later in Lewiston, Maine, but those two fights launched the legend of Muhammad Ali -- and by that time, I'd come full circle as a huge fan of the young champ. I followed his astonishing career through televised and pay-per-view fights (when I could afford them, anyway) for the next two decades as his career rose and fell against a backdrop of one of the most colorful and exciting eras in the history of boxing.
Given all that, I was jazzed to land a two-day job filming a commercial with Ali, a spot designed to run during the upcoming 1984 Olympics in LA. By now, though -- eight years after his epic battle with Joe Frazier during the Thrilla in Manila -- it was clear something wasn't right with the man. Whether due to damage suffered in those three savage wars with Frazier, or some other mysterious malady, Ali's once-dazzling verbal skills had eroded. 2
Excited as I was to see Ali up close, I worried that I'd find a shell of the man he used to be, and that seemed to be the case early on. The first setup had Ali sitting in a comfortable chair, reciting a tedious speech declaring that winning a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics was "my most memorable experience" -- but his eyes were at half-mast, his speech listless, slurred, and barely decipherable. During one particularly unintelligible take, the boom man glanced over at me and rolled his eyes.
It was bad.
Finally taking a break, Ali got up to stretch his legs. I maneuvered into his path, then stuck out my hand to introduce myself. He lit up instantly, eyes flashing, his grip firm. This was a very different man than the one who'd been slumped in that chair a minute before.
"You ever box?" he asked.
"No," I replied, "but I've been a huge fan of yours right from the start."
He smiled, and we talked for a few minutes, but I can't recall the specifics -- I was suddenly overwhelmed just to be standing there talking to Muhammad Ali, and so relieved to find him mentally sharp. This was the Ali I'd seen perform with such soaring eloquence for the boxing press so many times in the past. Talking one-on-one with a fellow human being, there was no trace of the stumbling confusion he'd displayed on camera.
We witnessed a very playful Ali over the course of those two days on set. His performance in front of the camera didn't improve much, but off camera he was a delight. During another long break, he wandered away from the cameras, then slowly made his way around the back of the stage to where the two fat, gray-haired old men who ran the facility sat, lost in conversation. Ali put a finger to his lips to keep the rest of us quiet, then crept up behind the two men until he was close enough to reach out -- and with the lightest touch, gently tickle the earlobe of one. Probably thinking it was an insect, the old guy shook his head and waved a hand at the ear. Ali did it again, and again, until the man finally turned around to see the ex-heavyweight champion of the world grinning at him.
How such a big man could pull that off still amazes me.
Ali had a man with him who I assumed was just a friend but turned out to be a sleight-of-hand artist. At one point the two of them were carrying on a conversation with a small circle of clients, producers, and the still photographer, all of whom were Japanese. Taking the lead, Ali's buddy grasped the photographer's hand as if to shake it, but while distracting him with his lively patter, he deftly removed the man's wristwatch and slipped it to Ali, who dropped it in his pocket. A few minutes later, Ali's friend asked the photographer what time it was. The man looked at his empty wrist in confusion, his mouth open -- and his jaw dropped further when Ali pulled the watch from his own pocket and dangled it in the air in front of everybody. 3
This was turning out to be a great job, and one I'd have gladly done for free: getting paid was just icing on the cake.
At the end of the second day, the filming done, Ali got up to leave. Once again I put myself in his path -- but this time I had my camera, and asked if I could get a photo with him. He smiled and nodded. I didn't quite know what to do, but Ali sure as hell did. We moved back into the lights, where I stood there like an idiot shaking his hand (a ridiculous pose), followed by a second shot where he held his big fist under my chin while glaring at me -- another forgettable shot. Then without a word, he snapped into a classic boxer's stance, and I followed his lead. Once we'd squared off, his face suddenly turned hard, as if a cloud had covered the sun. There was no smile now -- instead, Muhammed Ali fixed me with a cold stare.
"Did you just call me nigger?" he asked.
For a very long and extremely uncomfortable moment, I froze, unable to grasp what was happening -- suddenly feeling an unwelcome kinship with all those poor bastards who actually had to lace up the gloves and face Muhammad Ali in the ring.
He waited a beat as I twisted in the wind.
"Oh," he said, finally breaking the spell, his face relaxing into a playful grin. "You called me bigger."
The entire stage erupted with laughter, which is when the photo at the top of the page was snapped.
That picture recorded what was in some ways the peak of my Hollywood career, a moment that will live with me forever. I'd go on to work as a Best Boy, then Gaffer, traveling all over the country and beyond to film commercials and features, seeing spectacular locations and meeting some very interesting people (some of them actors) -- experiences that left me with a fat bank of memories. But I'd never again have another moment like that, squaring off with Muhammed Ali, the Greatest of All Time.
Some things you only get to do once in life, and I was lucky enough to meet my Number One sports hero -- the ultimate celebrity of the entertainment world -- on a day I'll never forget.
Thanks, Champ -- may you rest in peace.
Muhammad Ali: Jan 17, 1942 -- June 3, 2016
1 For a terrific 20-minute interview with David Remnick (editor of The New Yorker and author of many books, including a good one about Muhammed Ali) on the social and cultural impact Ali had back then, click this.
2 It was only later that we came to understand he suffered from a form of Parkinson's disease.
3 Years later, I found out for myself exactly how that befuddled photographer felt...
Michael Taylor is now wrapping up a forty-year career in the film and television industry, and will soon retire to the cool green woods of Northern California. You can find more stories of life below decks in Hollywood at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium.
Michael Taylor © 2016
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