Real Life

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

It's an early December day in downtown Houston. The warm, muggy morning has become a chilly afternoon of persistent drizzle, the region's first rainfall in six months. Cold gusts of wind sweep across the buildings on the corner of San Jacinto and Rusk, which is lined with vintage sedans and taxicabs. A crowd mills around, variously decked out in cashmere sweaters, porkpie hats, thin jackets with ties, tight-fitting skirts and pointy-toed high heels. This could be New York City, circa 1961.

The illusion is shattered the minute you spot the folk scurrying around with pagers, cell phones and walkie-talkies strapped to their belts or notice the semis filled with lighting and camera equipment. The contrast between these urban dwellers, one electronically leashed and the other pre-information age, underscores the reality here: ABC is in town shooting a biopic about Muhammad Ali back when he was still known as Cassius Clay.

This made-for-TV movie, King of the World, is an adaptation of David Remnick's 1998 critically acclaimed biography by the same name. The book delves into the relatively unknown early life of Clay's upbringing in Kentucky and his meteoric rise as a young boxer who defeated the unbeatable world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in 1964, winning his first world title.

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."

The book also deals with Ali's conversion to the Nation of Islam and his relationship with Malcolm X, and leaves off just after a federal jury in Houston in 1967 convicted Ali for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War because of his religious beliefs.


The extras stand under a corner arcade, trying not to get wet, while they wait for their signal to file across the street. The temperature's dropping, and they're getting restless. Ask anyone who has ever worked on a movie set, and they'll tell you: It's deadly, deadly boring. This is probably where the phrase "hurry up and wait" originated, muttered by some Roman soldier on a Cecil B. DeMille picture.

But unlike Hollywood movie sets, where the tension's so thick you could cut it with a chain saw, everyone seems calm, friendly. Perhaps, unlike their L.A. counterparts, jaded and bored by it all, these folk are just happy to be here. Certainly the Houston Film Commission is happy that the production is here.

Rick Ferguson, director of the commission, says that his office "worked really hard" to get King of the World but admits that it probably came down to that old adage: location, location, location. Houston's vast array of available settings, vegetation and (usually) mild weather appealed to the producers. (Of course, it didn't hurt that they didn't have to pay the city for permit fees, which can run hundreds of dollars a day for one site.) The film was shot on several locations, including the Astrodome, a diner on Telephone Road, all over downtown and at Hobby Airport.

If Houston was good for King of the World, the movie was just as generous to the city. Although the principals (director, director of photography, art director, main actors) come straight out of Hollywood, more than half of the crew members, from truck drivers to caterers, are from Texas. Ferguson estimates that the production will pour "multiple millions of dollars" into our local economy, from paid crews to lumberyards, and because it's a period piece, used furniture stores, antique car clubs, vintage clothing and prop stores will all benefit.

One of the extras, a local college professor, comments that the costumes and the setting have the authentic ring of civil rights days. "Especially the way the women are dressed," he notes, as a petite blond in a Jackie Kennedy knockoff suit saunters past.

But all eyes are on Terrence Howard, the actor playing Cassius Clay. Enjoying the recent success of a starring role in the box-office hit The Best Man, Howard is hot. He's tall and slender, and has captivating clear green eyes against what folk in New Orleans might call café au lait skin. He's dressed in a light colored suit with bow tie. He seems more interested in chatting with an attractive, dark-haired extra whose tattoo is visible through her pantyhose than in being interviewed by some local reporter. Zooom, his head turns and he focuses on the interviewer. "Muhammad Ali was a great man, but I have no icons. Me. I am my own icon." Zooom. Head turns and focus is on attractive extra. "Why do you keep running away?" he asks, flirtatiously. "Stay here." She does.

Howard has apparently adopted his role as Cassius Clay in more ways than one. The young Clay was always in charge, and he loved the ladies. Howard, hands in pockets, gets irritated that this scene is taking so long to set up. He reveals that he has had some friction with the director, John Sacret Young, who also serves as executive producer. "It was frustrating at first," Howard says. "Then I got into my own rhythm." Soon after Howard's comment, the actor and director huddle together to discuss the next scene, a seemingly uncomplicated moment in which Clay meets his soon-to-be "spiritual sparing partner" Bundini Brown (Chi McBride) for the first time. The director looks to be explaining the scene to Howard, who keeps shaking his head while they both pace. After a few minutes they break and prepare to film the action. Howard seems satisfied.

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."

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 liz.belile@houstonpress.com.

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