His blustery gripes aside, rookie actor Muhammad Ali
is giving ‘Freedom Road’ his best shot
It was on the last day of rehearsals for Muhammad Ali’s starring role a TV-movie, “Freedom Road,” Oct. 29-30) that John Travolta flew down to the Natchez, Miss., location to pay the world’s heavyweight champion a visit. The Greatest and The Latest had become friends. When Ali whupped Leon Spinks and won back his title for an unprecedented third time, Travolta had been at ringside next to Ali’s wife, Veronica.
Now it was early October, and the leaves had just begun to turn at the old Belmont Manor plantation. Here, alongside some wooden slave shacks erected for the filming, Muhammad Ali suddenly called upon his friend to perform – “Go back out and walk in like you did in ‘Saturday Night Fever,’ John!” And so he did, this young man who’s been termed the hottest new movie star in the world, kicking up dirt steppin-fetchingly as the Champ cried: “Go John! Dance John! Lookit that! Maaaaan! Maaaaan! Veronica, come over here, show her too, John!”
Later, Veronica would comment: “People say John doesn’t usually act like that, but he was really excited. jumping up and down. Around Muhammad, he’s like a little kid.”
Everyone figured life would be a bit outrageous when Muhammad Ali agreed to come to Mississippi and play Gideon Jackson in “Freedom Road.” Adapted from a best-selling 1940s novel by Howard Fast, the four-hour, $7.5-million production is a based-on-fact story of a black man’s rise from slave status to a seat in the U.S. Congress after the Civil War. For 12 weeks’ work, Muhammad Ali received a million dollars or about one-fourth of what he generally earned for 45 minutes in the ring. Not what you’d consider prime wages for the Champ, but Ali considered the character a kindred spirit.
As Ali put it, “Gideon Jackson is a mythical character, but he’s typical of that time. He’s not afraid; he stood up against all the structures like I did with the draft board and by becoming a Muslim. And he’s got an idea for freedom and justice for all people. Like the producers say, he’s the kind of man I would’ve been if I was living then. Actually it’s good I wasn’t,” he added with a smile, “’cause I’d probably’ve been dead – quick.”
When filming began, though, the big question was whether Ali could take direction. As a fighter, he’d always been a consummate “actor” and had already played himself in his movie biography, “The Greatest,” But he’d never attempted to portray another character. Kris Kristofferson, a showbiz friend of Ali’s who plays the role of Abner Lait in “Freedom Road” and served as the Champ’s unofficial acting coach in Natchez, described the early difficulties:
“First of all, he’s in every scene. The range he’s covering goes from an illiterate slave to a senator who’s dealing with Ulysses S. Grant. Also, he’s going from playing to a huge audience down to a camera that doesn’t miss anything. His acting method has always been exaggeration. Now he’s got to learn a much subtler approach.”
To smooth this process, executive producer Zev Braun hired an award-winning Czech director with a reputation for understatement. Jan Kadar’s instructions called for Ali to be as simple and natural as possible. For his part, Muhammad had started studying the script even while still preparing to fight Spinks. Once on the set, he wasn’t making any big demands. Except for his family, an administrative aide and a photographer, the usual fight entourage was absent. Wife Veronica did have a small part in the film, but at the producer’s request and not Ali’s. According to Braun, “All said from the front, don’t do anything to please him, just do whatever’s good for the picture.”
Of course, the days weren’t without lighthearted moments. Watch now as Ali sneaks up behind Kristofferson, who’s innocently getting his hair cut outside his trailer. Observe Ali drop to his knees and quietly proceed to gather Kris’s shorn locks into a shirt pocket. Now listen to Kristofferson’s helpless pleas as Muhammad waltzes over to a group of teen-age fans and, with great fanfare, distributes the pieces.
“I knew he was gonna do something to embarrass me,” Kristofferson is saying, safe again inside his trailer. “Muhammad is an amazing man. In some ways, he’s as simple as a child. But in other ways, to me he’s inscrutable. Like a Sphinx.”
It’s only the second day of shooting, but already Kristofferson is impressed with Ali’s acting. “It’s funny, he’ll sit out there lookin’ like nothing’s happening, like he’s between rounds waiting for the bell. But once that camera starts to roll, he comes to life. And once he hears the rhythm of a line, he doesn’t forget it.”
Outside, under the magnolia trees along the old plantation, a group of black extras is marching behind Muhammad Ali, singing “Down by the Riverside.” As Gideon, Ali wears a black stovepipe hat and carries a tan saddlebag slung around his shoulder. In this scene, he is a delegate headed to a state constitutional convention.
“Is that a take? Is that a print?, Ali yells as director Kadar hollers cut. Then, as someone comes over to adjust his costume: “You’d almost think this was slavery for real!” The extras laugh as he offers a mock display of fierceness, biting his lower lip and making a fist. “OK, Ali, let’s try it again,” Kadar says through a megaphone and, obediently. the Champ prepares for another take.
It’s 1 P.M. when the filming pauses. Ali, looking tired, his words coming automatically, reclines on a couch inside his trailer. “The hardest thing,” he says, “is waiting, rehearsing, standing all day in one place, stop, cut, do it again. My manager and me are really sorry we took this movie. Not because it’s a bad deal. But I gotta stay here all this time for a million dollars. Man, I’m hot right now! I should be out hittin’ countries!”
Now, as he begins to outline his future possibilities, he sits up. His face becomes animated and his words rush forth. “Deals, promotions, offices, money offers, houses, castles, Arabian and Moslem kings . . . the WORLD is pullin’ me now! Man, my life is just started! All I’ve done was just to introduce me to the real fight!”
Excitedly, he runs down his early plans for his proposed new organization (called, fittingly enough, WORLD), a kind of Red Cross for Third World nations. He talks of a 10-year, $50-million contract offered him to become Libya’s full-time sports instructor. He tells of the 62 colleges waiting for him to come deliver one of his 45 lectures on various “topics of life.”
“Movies. I could go 50 years! Robert Redford, Paul Newman, John Wayne are good in white countries. But worldwide, for the darker people, Muhammad Ali is the biggest name on Earth!”
There is little doubt that Ali is indeed the most recognized face on the planet. His aides even speak of the possibility that he might someday run for President. Yet, somewhere inside, it seems he is no longer so sure of his horizons. After launching into his familiar optimistic riff, in a quieter moment later that afternoon he seemed to be contemplating his own mortality – almost as if, privately, he wondered whether his hour was passing.
It happens as he sits with Kristofferson at a picnic table, picking at a plate of meat and fruit and talking about black congressman Ralph Metcalfe. “Just saw him,” Ali is saying, “ridin’ with him, talkin’. He died yesterday. We gonna all die soon. All we can leave is a good name.”
“Yeah, but that’s gonna be a long time from now,” Kristofferson interjects, a bit uneasily.
“Fifty years ain’t long,” replies Ali. Then as he starts his walk back toward the set, he speaks of having retired as the heavyweight champion. “I’m always gonna have that,” he says quietly.
Kristofferson watches as Ali moves away, shifts his mood again, and begins making faces at the cast. “He’s feeling finite,” says Kris. “I think right now he’s in a period where he doesn’t really know what he wants to do. I think he’ll give this movie a legitimate shot and, by the end, he’ll know if he wants to go on with acting or not.”
As the sun fades, Ali retires for the day to a secluded house rented for him outside Natchez. Kristofferson, hounded by fans at a hotel, has accepted Ali’s invitation to move in. Also staying here is a young magician named Terry Lasorda, who came to training camp to entertain the Champ and wound up as his resident Houdini. For two weeks before the Ali-Spinks fight, every night Lasorda would come to Ali’s hotel room to do tricks and teach him magic.
Now, at the house, Lasorda is displaying his prowess with cards and coins as his mentor shouts encouragement: “Ain’t he good? I’m his promoter! Gonna take him to England and all countries! He’ll be the greatest of all times!”
Finally, Ali himself takes a big metal key in the palm of his hand and orders the living room to silence. “Now what Terry taught me here is really power,” he says. “I’m gonna make this key turn over with my mind, watch.” Under his breath, he starts to whisper: “Concentrate…. Concentrate…. Mmmmmm…. Mmmmm.” As Ali grunts with seeming strain, slowly the key does indeed begin to raise itself and eventually flips over. “Wasn’t that somethin’?” the Greatest says proudly.
Then he launches into conversation about his relationship with Hollywood, the way Kristofferson was “makin’ this movie just to do me a favor” and how Travolta went down and danced with the people at a Natchez motel “just ’cause I asked him to.” Apparently even Elvis Presley had once served an Ali whim. But let Muhammad tell the story:
“Few years ago, Elvis came to my training camp in Pennsylvania, stayed two weeks. Nobody knew about it. One night I said, ‘Elvis, do me a favor. I got a guitar. Please come with me down to Pottsville, little town nearby, this redneck place called Spoonies.’ I called the owner, told him to let us come in the back door. It was Saturday night, dancin’ inside. Elvis went up to the mike, towel over his face, took it off” – and here Ali imitates – “‘You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, cryin’ all the time.’ Then we flew out the door again. Can you imagine bein’ in a little one-horse town and Elvis Presley runs on stage? Man, people ran all outta the place lookin’, gettin’ in cars, tryin’ to find us. Elvis said ‘Champ, I’ve never done that before in my life’.”
“I like to see common people happy,” he is saying now. “When I was a kid I always wanted to meet celebrities. Some of ’em give an autograph by just making a line. You can’t even read it. I always write ‘Muhammad Ali,’ real plain. It means a lot to these average people you meet.”
Who were your boyhood heroes? Ali is asked. He sneaks over behind Kristofferson’s ear, snapping his fingers in a cricket-click noise, laughing as Kris jumps. Then he replies: “Jackie Robinson. Sugar Ray Robinson. Pee Wee Reese, ’cause he’s from Louisville. Rasslers like Gorgeous George. Movie stars like Charlton Heston, Roy Rogers, Annie Oakley. Always liked Biblical pictures and Westerns.”
Suddenly, seized with an idea, Ali races over to the phone. “I’ll show you another nice guy!” he cries, and begins to dial long-distance. “Kris! Kris! I got somebody here I want you to talk to,” he says. On the other end of the line is Count Dracula himself, film star Christopher Lee. Ali chuckles with delight as Kristofferson takes the phone and says shyly “Is this Christopher Lee? Oh God, it is! . . . I’m knocked out just listenin’ to you…. Hey, great to meet you, over the phone even.” Then Muhammad grabs the receiver back. “You’ve got Kris Kristofferson blushing!” he shouts.
Revved up now, Ali dials “Freedom Road”‘s executive producer and disguises his voice. “You shall die tomorrow if you don’t get that nigger out of that top role!” he says threateningly. Then, allowing a moment of stunned silence, he laughs and adds, “This is Ali.” Kristofferson, seated again on a couch, shakes his head. “Zev’ll have a coronary before this is over,” he says. Ali, meanwhile, is asking about the day’s work – “Was it good? I really acted good, huh?” – then announces to the room, “They’re goin’ crazy over the rushes!”
The next morning dawns foggy. Out along the Natchez Trace, an old Mississippi pioneer trail, Ali is filming a scene with Kristofferson. The Champ had arisen at 5 A.M. and had run for five miles. Now, taking a brief lunch break, he rips out a piece of magazine page and folds it to pick his teeth. Someone else starts telling him about the antebellum plantation homes around Natchez. “I was in one 112 years ago in my other life,” Ali replies matter-of-factly.
Muhammad Ali, man-child come to Hollywood, magician of moods, rises now and returns once more to stand before the camera’s eye. What his future may hold, nobody can really say. Zev Braun talks of costarring him next with Travolta or Sophia Loren. Morocco wants him to come star in a movie about a Moslem warrior. The Chinese have invited him to visit Peking. But prankster or poet, actor or ambassador. we have not seen the last of Muhammad Ali.
Kris Kristofferson, visitor John Travolta, Ali’s wife, Veronica. and Ali on location.