I’ve read a fair number of posts the past few days concerning the passing of Muhammad Ali. People have enjoyed sharing stories of their encounter with, “The Greatest.” Much has been said about Muhammad Ali, but I thought I might add one final story of my own. You see, I also had an unexpected encounter with “The Champ.” I’ll even go as far as saying, I was struck by Muhammad Ali and never hit the floor. That’s right, kids. This humble cartoonist took one from a heavyweight champ and managed to walk away without a scratch. Let me give you the blow by blow description of the incident back in the seventies.
For those of you who were not around in the seventies, you’ll not remember the colorful heavyweight champ had become a household name. Muhammad Ali was known around the world even though he had since left the ring. The Champ remained brash, colorful and outspoken as ever. To say Ali was somewhat controversial would be an understatement. A genuine rock star, crowds would gather wherever he would appear. It was in this most unusual atmosphere, the champ decided to do something that was crazy even for him. Muhammad Ali would star in his own television show as a cartoon character. The NBC Saturday Morning television show would take Ali along with his young friends on a series of adventures. Muhammad Ali would take on the role of a “big brother.” He would be a mentor and role model for the kids and pass on nuggets of wisdom throughout each episode. It should come as no surprise the television show would be entitled, “The Greatest.”
Oddly enough, the producer of “The Greatest” was an old friend. Fred Calvert and I had shared an office at the Walt Disney Studios back in the sixties. As we labored away in D-wing, Fred often spoke of one day becoming a producer. As we flipped away on our dead end jobs doing in-betweens I couldn’t help but think cynically, “Good luck with that!” Now, it was suddenly the seventies and Fred Calvert had become exactly what he had predicted a decade earlier. He was now producer of a network television show and he summoned me to his Hollywood office to consider a job. “Do you know why I want you on this show?” he asked one sunny afternoon. Being a wise ass, I immediately replied, “Of course, I know, Fred. I’m here to make you rich.” Despite my attitude, my friend hired me anyway.
Our television shows were recorded in Hollywood near what was once known as “Gower Gulch.” We drove our own cars, but Muhammad Ali traveled to the recording sessions in two limos. Why two limos, you asked? It’s because one limousine was a decoy. That’s how careful we had to be when traveling with “The Champ.” Once inside the recording studio the sessions were pretty much what you would expect from any other Saturday Morning cartoon show. Producer, Fred Calvert sat alongside his star and fed Ali his lines. I doubt Ali even saw his lines before the session began. If he did have a script prior to recording I doubt he even bothered to read it. After recording for about an hour we decided to take a break. As I was hurrying down the hallway in the recording studio I noticed Muhammad Ali was directly in front of me. However, the Champ must have changed his mind because he suddenly reversed his direction and slammed into me. As you can imagine, crashing into Muhammad Ali was like crashing into a stone wall. Of course, the Champ barely noticed he had practically knocked out an animator. Still somewhat preoccupied, Ali mumbled something like, “Excuse me,” and continued on his way. Still reeling from our unexpected collision, I regained my composure and staggered back to my chair. Soon, the recording session continued and I couldn’t help but reflect on this unique experience. Most people would consider themselves lucky if they managed to get a handshake from “The Greatest.” However, this animated filmmaker was able to get “Slammed” one afternoon and survive. That’s right, kids. I took a hit from Muhammad Ali and lived to tell the tale.