Real Life

When He Was King: The city that convicted Muhammad Ali now hosts a film about the boxing legend

Part of the tension between Howard and Young, if that's what you want to label it, seems to come from their different interpretations of Cassius Clay: Young appears to be painting with broader strokes, depicting Clay as a larger-than-life iconic figure, while Howard appears to prefer nuance, giving Clay a complexity and shading that TV tends to avoid. Howard offers a case in point, in a different context:

"There was a scene where I was talking to a radio station... and [Young] wanted me to be animated, and I just wanted to be matter-of-fact." So that's how he played it. And whenever controversy erupted again, he says, "I stuck to my guns. I just bulldozed my way through."

The director's tone is more careful when discussing his relationship with the feisty actor. "He is both boy and man. Like Cassius. He can be big and brash, or he can reveal vulnerability."

Terrence Howard, of Best Man fame, takes on Cassius Clay.
Bob D'Amico
Terrence Howard, of Best Man fame, takes on Cassius Clay.
Howard may not have the look of Ali, but he has "the spirit."
Bob D'Amico
Howard may not have the look of Ali, but he has "the spirit."

There is at least one other Muhammad Ali biography being made for television (for Fox, in this case), as well as an ill-fated Will Smith/Ali project that has been tied up with legal issues for over two years. "I think the other guy [David Ramsey] from Fox looks more like him," says Howard. The college professor extra speaks up. "Yeah, but you got the spirit." Howard nods absently and shouts, "Come on! I'm nervous! I'm ready to go on to the next one." He dances and preens in the reflection of the storefront window, rarely taking his eyes off himself.

This is the sort of role that could make an actor famous, even if it is just network TV (of course, there's always the danger of becoming Gary Busey). Yet taking the role wasn't an easy decision for Howard; he was looking for a sure thing or, as he calls it, a "fixed fight."

Howard had only a month to prepare for this fight, fixed or otherwise. A month isn't long to step into a role so physical and mental. Howard has never been an amateur or pro boxer, but he says he has had "over 125 fights in real life." He radiates confidence. Howard says Ali didn't fight to lose. He couldn't afford it. "And neither can I."

The King of the World teleplay was written by director Young, who was a co-creator of the series China Beach, which, he points out, is still the only television series set during the Vietnam War. Young is a boomer who, with his baseball cap and graying goatee, looks a bit like Steven Spielberg. He says he was drawn to this project for many reasons.

Young's interest was piqued when someone sent him the book; what first struck him was how little he knew about the early years of Cassius Clay. "It was the halcyon period before the storm. You could feel it coming," says Young, referring to the fallout from the Vietnam War. The larger-than-life presence of Cassius Clay, a "new kind of boxer," was also part of that coming insurgency.

Of course, there's also the fact that Hollywood loves a crippled-celebrity story; and that made-for-TV movies usually deal with "hot" topics -- and nothing could be hotter than the story of Muhammad Ali right now. Both Sports Illustrated and USA Today have recently called him Athlete of the Century. He finally got his own Wheaties box. The 1996 Ali documentary When We Were Kings won an Academy Award the same year he lit the torch for the Atlanta Olympics. A collection of essays titled The Muhammad Ali Reader came out last year. Even the Houston Chronicle got in on the action and trumpeted Ali as "a thrilling symbol of heroism, courage" in February of this year.

He has come back into our consciousness as a tragic hero, the man whose agile mind, mouth and body made him famous, and who, at age 57, is now ravaged by Parkinson's disease. Young says that as he was adapting the story, he realized that there was much more than he could cover in one movie, so he ended his film in 1964, with Clay beating Sonny Liston. It was a pivotal moment for world culture as well as for Clay. The next day, he announced his allegiance as an African-American to the Nation of Islam and changed his name, which brought derision and grief from the media, as well as from his own family, and influenced his decision not to participate in the Vietnam War, which nearly destroyed him.

"During his career he endured so much," says Young. "Here's the man who was so great at talking, now having trouble talking. Here's the man who had so many remarkable abilities, and now he can barely move. He was vilified for his beliefs and actions, and now we've come full circle. We see he was right about so many things. But it nearly cost him his career."

Ali soared through several time periods, and many of us soared with him. Young adds that, as storytellers, we are drawn to boxers because their lives are "full of highs and lows. Their career does not last forever."

King of the World will air Monday, January 10, on ABC.

E-mail Liz Belile at

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