Growing up as a teenager, two of my heroes were Muhammad Ali and Dick Cavett. Ali, because he was the greatest heavyweight fighter of my generation and Cavett, because he was probably the best TV talk show host of his time.
When I was a kid, I recall my father talking about the legendary boxer Joe Lewis.
Ali was the Joe Lewis of my lifetime.
While, Lewis, “The Brown Bomber” could hit as hard as a mule could kick, Ali’s fame transcended his pugilistic prowess. He became a lightning rod in the Sixties and Seventies for his courage and stamina outside the ring.
He shocked the world when he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, embracing the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.
He famously (or infamously) refused to be drafted or fight in the Vietnam War, a difficult decision that many felt cost him the prime years of his boxing career.
The world would never know what he might have accomplished the years he was banned from the sport.
Instead, he staunchly stuck to his convictions in the face of sharp criticism from those who thought he was a cowardly draft dodger. His critics never seemed to consider the fearlessness and resolve required to face some menacing, formidable opponents.
It was more than just his spectacular skill, floating footwork or blinding speed. He had proved all that when he won the Olympic Gold Medal early in his career at the age of 18.
As he matured, his persona developed. To the disappointment of many, he seemed to become overly self-confident, even boastful.
He joked, recited his own brand of poetry and infuriated those who began to think he was another flash in the pan fighter, guilty of being too full of himself.
But he delivered on his promises, with devastating effect. And his following grew.
Among his admirers, in addition to me, was Dick Cavett, the hip young network television interviewer who brought his own rare mix of wit, humor and intelligence to the talk show scene. He was cool.
The Dick Cavett Show aired on ABC from 1968 to 1986.
His famous guests included some of his personal heroes like Groucho Marx, as well as Hollywood royalty who never granted interviews to anyone. I’m speaking about his history-making chat with Katharine Hepburn.
Cavett’s easy-going style, encyclopedic knowledge and thorough preparedness made him a star in his own right.
Among his favorite guests was Muhammed Ali, whom he invited back again and again for a total of 14 shows, spanning Ali’s illustrious career. Piecing them together into a documentary was a stroke of pure genius.
What I was expecting to see what a montage of the interviews, edited together. I would have been happy with just that.
But Ali and Cavett reaches beyond the interview clips to include interviews and excerpts from Ali’s friend and boxing nemesis Joe Frazier, his longtime trainer Angelo Dundee, sportswriter and boxing analyst Larry Merchant, as well as archival footage including Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan.
More recent interviews include Al Sharpton and Dick Cavett, reflecting on his unlikely friendship with Ali the spanned several decades. It was a “bromance” before the word was coined.
It’s clear that Ali and Cavett genuinely liked each other, through thick and thin. The victories and defeats. The movie captures the special bond that connected them.
It’s what makes Ali and Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes such a treasure.
Cavett, unlike anyone else, was able to navigate around the colorful showmanship that was Ali’s trademark, to explore the depths of his soul, politically, spiritually and morally.
For me, Ali and Cavett, is a powerhouse of a documentary film that not only encapsulates the turbulent era of civil rights in the Sixties and Seventies, but illuminates the issues that still divide us as a nation today.
I had the incredible good fortune of actually meeting Muhammad Ali many years ago here in Pittsburgh. I was working in television advertising back then.
One of my favorite clients was the fun-loving owner of a car dealership who called me one day, out of the blue and asked if I could come out to his showroom later in the week to take some photos of “a special guest” who was going to be stopping by in the afternoon. That’s all he said.
When I arrived, I was completely blown away to discover that the mystery guest was none other than Muhammad Ali. My head was spinning.
I never imagined that I would ever be in the same room with him in my lifetime. It seemed unimaginable. Surreal.
After taking a number of shots with my Nikon, capturing a small group of invitees posing with Ali, the owner asked if I might like “a quick shot with The Champ” before I left.
I wanted the shot more than anything, but worried that a point-and-shoot snapshot photographer attempting to take a quick photograph with a complicated, manual-focus Nikon camera would never get the shot. And that would have been crushing. But I handed him the camera and prayed.
I nervously stepped next to Ali, hoping not to waste to much of his precious, allotted time when he turned to me, slowly reached down, and gently took my hand.
I had absolutely no idea of what was going on. I was clueless.
But he proceeded to slowly form my hand into a fist and raise it up to his nose.
In an instant, I realized what he was up to.
I burst into laughter the split second that the owner of the dealership pressed the shutter button.
He took one shot. And it turned out to be one of those “Decisive Moment” shots that Cartier-Bresson had written about decades ago—the perfect moment—of me, for all appearances, landing a punch on Muhammad Ali’s nose.
Hands down, it’s my favorite celebrity photo. It even ended up in the company newsletter.
I’ll keep it always, and forever be reminded of the kindness, humor, generosity and touching humanity of that experience and that gentle giant of a man, who, in that fleeting moment of time, truly was The Greatest, in every sense of the word.
Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes can be seen on HBO.