AP Photo/John Rooney
Poor Sonny: Everybody thought Liston would destroy Clay, but the Louisville Lip had the last snarl in Miami in 1964.
The first thing Ali said when he saw me again was, "King of all Kings, right!" Then he invited me to come listen some more.
"Nat Turner and Wyatt Earp," he said dreamily, "they was dead a hundred years before their pictures was made. And, of course, they didn't get to play themselves."
He was lounging on a couch in the stern of another motor home, dressed for a morning run in black sweat suit and black Army boots. But he was also wearing makeup for his title role in his auto-flick, "The Greatest." I was writing about this for the Times' Arts & Leisure section.
"After this picture, I'm going to play Hannibal, hundreds of elephants," he said. "I got to have roles equivalent to my life. This face" -- he sat up and touched it reverentially -- "is worth billions. My roles have always got to be No. 1. I can't be the boy in the kitchen. Some big football star plays the waiter in the movie, while some homosexual gets the lead role."
I probably should have known better, but it was such a great line and so often true. Ali always made homosexual jokes ... wasn't this a way of portraying his character? And I really didn't care about protecting him. Now I was really tired of Ali, his easy quotes, his instant mythologies, his on-again, off-again religiosity. This quasi-accurate movie was based on his quasi-accurate autobiography. The Oscar-winning screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. told me, "What made the script difficult to write was the facts. We decided not to be inhibited by the facts, to change them if necessary, to adhere to the truth."
Spare me, o revered blacklisted truth-teller. I wanted to tell him how the Commies couldn't get over Ali's not chasing blonde Swedish tail, but I was in this warm city while it was cold where I lived to make some money and get my name back in the public prints, not to lecture guys who had sacrificed for their principles and were now able to make a bundle on other guys who had sacrificed for their principles. Later, alone in my hotel room, I decided that I was a fool, envious and petty, not a wise man.
If I really were such a hotshot, I would have found a way to write Lardner's explanation of Ali's prodigious sexual appetites. He said that Ali had told him he refrained from climaxing so he wouldn't disappoint all those who showed up for an audience. I decided that since Ali never boasted about his women, and seemed not to discriminate in favor of youth or beauty, he wasn't scoring so much as he was being generous. Think of it as very special autograph sessions. So, maybe I am a wise man, too. Or just a wise guy?
What I did get into the paper got me into hot water, that quote about homosexuals in leading roles. Not only did the National Gay Task Force write to the Times and demand an apology, which it got, but it removed my name from its list of nominees for its board. Because of my liberal politics and my help in the past, I was to be the token straight board member. The official explanation of my removal was that the group had decided it should be all gay.
You sacrifice when you stand up for your principles.