- The Washington Times - Friday, December 28, 2001

NEW YORK CITY Will Smith, who stars in the new biographical drama "Ali," says he turned down the film for years "out of respect for the champ and out of pure, stark terror."
"I didn't want to be the guy who messed up the Muhammad Ali story," the 31-year-old actor says during round-table interviews with the press.
Mr. Smith "I always felt I understood Muhammad Ali" says he felt comedic and spiritual connections with the boxer, who is nearing 60 and suffers from Parkinson's disease. One of the actor's more amusing affinities: "We're both mama's boys, basically."
The actor and director Michael Mann acknowledge they dug in their heels for a while until Sony Columbia decided "Ali" was a commercially promising venture.
"Will and I decided we were gonna make the film regardless of costs or consequences," Mr. Mann says. "Once that happened, we were confident that the same commitment would be shared by a large number of people. It spread to other actors who became a part of the cast and then to the studio management."
The movie starts with the buildup to the 1964 heavyweight championship fight against Sonny Liston at Miami Beach and concludes with the title bout against George Foreman in Kinshasha, Zaire, in 1974.
The director says Ali and his fourth wife, Lonnie, the only one of Ali's wives not depicted in the movie's chronicle, were content with what he calls "creative approval over the totality of the film." They evidently gave their blessing when he outlined the screenplay verbally.
"They could say, 'Go,' or they could tell me they had a problem," Mr. Mann says. "I was very confident, because the idea of the movie they had communicated to Will and I was exactly where we were at. They put it negatively, as a matter of fact. What they didn't want was a sentimentalized Ali or Ali as some kind of religious icon, nothing that diminished the drama of a real struggle.
"Like any other life, his has had its share of mistakes. For example, his relationship with Malcolm X," Mr. Mann says. "We got a lot of insight from one of Malcolm's daughters. She recalled Ali taking her aside once and telling her how much he really loved her father, despite their estrangement. Yet to this day, Ali thinks Malcolm made a terrible mistake by defying Elijah Muhammad within the Nation of Islam. Those are the kinds of contradictions that happen in life, and we didn't want to gloss over them."
Mr. Smith felt there was an abiding piety in the publicly boastful and outrageous man he agreed to play. "The one thing I linked onto more than anything else is the strength of a pure, simple connection with God," he says. "So many difficult questions get answered when you submit to the will of your God. For example, with Ali's stance on the war in Vietnam. He truly believed that his God didn't want him fighting that war. There's nothing the American government or any other force or influence could do that would be worse than what his God would do if he defied God's will.
"That part of the preparation was really easy. I believe in that concept of simplicity. God has laid out very clear rules in Catholicism, in Judaism, in Islam. Take 'thou shalt not lie': It's not conditional. It doesn't distinguish between malicious lies and white lies told to spare somebody's feelings. Don't lie, period. If you allow yourself to embrace it, everything in life will fall into line more simply."
The most grueling part for Mr. Smith was training to gain a physique comparable to Ali's in his prime and adequate boxing skills for a movie in which real blows were considered indispensable. Mr. Smith bulked up about 35 pounds on a protein-intensive diet and then went into a boxing camp supervised by Darrell Foster.
"We decided early on that we wanted the boxing to look authentic. The only way to do that was to authentically hit each other," Mr. Smith says. From the first day of training camp, Darrell said, 'This is not a movie camp. We're here to become fighters, not actors.' I thought, 'Wow, Michael Mann and this dude are crazy.'"
Mr. Mann interjects, "There was a fundamental decision early on: no stuntmen. No stunts or fake punches. That was why Will worked only with real fighters. Michael Bentt, who plays Sonny Liston; James Toney, who was Joe Frazier; Charles Shufford, who was George Foreman. They're all boxers. The fight scenes were choreographed and derived from the original fights, but Will didn't know exactly when the blows would come. These guys had the skills and timing and accuracy to make it look real. It wasn't like a stuntman faking punches, relying on his seven-step sequence of moves, which would have looked artificial."
Mr. Smith says he was given "a course syllabus" in preparation for the role. The first semester of the course consisted of three months of physical training and boxing lessons. "After that, we fought," he says. "Every Thursday was fight day. You'd train all week in a certain style for the fight scheduled to be filmed on Thursday. Almost like Ali in his best Terminator style, I'd try to break down the opponent, try to find weaknesses and attack them. There were some rough days. I got hit every day. The Joe Frazier fight day was the worst. If it looks like someone got hit, they did get hit. I said to Ali about that Frazier left hook, 'At least you had the luxury of not knowing it was coming.'"
A less conspicuous problem for the filmmakers was depicting the subdued Ali. "I just couldn't find any tape with that man quiet," Mr. Smith recalls fondly. "We had a wonderful assist from Leon Gast, who compiled all this footage in Zaire that was eventually winnowed down for the documentary 'When We Were Kings.' He had 17 hours of outtakes and barely a flicker of Ali in a quiet mood. But I did discover something very useful: when he's off, he's completely off. Just as much as he's on when he's completely on."
Mr. Mann concurs: "It's as if he were in a coma. Not a muscle moves."
Jon Voight and Jamie Foxx, cast as the late sportscaster Howard Cosell and the late Ali factotum Drew "Bundini" Brown, had to be fitted for hairpieces on a daily basis for the movie.
"As the years went by and Bundini was getting older," Mr. Foxx says, "there were fewer patches of hair next to the bald patches. They'd kind of sprinkle it on. I also added about 25 pounds to look as stocky as Bundini."
Mr. Foxx also attracted the enmity of several aspiring Bundinis, notably the Los Angeles radio personality Steve Harvey. "This role was the hottest thing in Hollywood," Mr. Foxx says. "Everybody was trying to get it."
Without mentioning Mr. Harvey by name, Mr. Foxx says, "This radio guy was after it. He had been invited to read, but it didn't go well for him. I had Will in my corner, but Michael put me through my paces at auditions. It was never a done deal."
Mr. Foxx managed to avoid a showdown, but the hostility served as extra incentive. "You have to be humble in these situations," the actor says. "I said to myself, 'I gotta nail it.' There are these guys who feel kind of crazed, and not an awful lot of roles like this come along for African-American men. So I did the whole nine. Worked on the voice, shaved the head, put on the pounds. Hopefully well, I don't care what the guys with a grievance think now."
Mr. Voight encountered Ali in 1969, soon after "Midnight Cowboy" had elevated the actor's movie career. "Not that I spent a whole lot of time with him over the years," Mr. Voight says, "but we remained on friendly terms, and there were moments I remember vividly.
"He was larger than life and a lot of fun to be with. I've said this many times: He was the hope. He came along during the political assassinations, when a lot of the political leadership was being killed. We were questioning everything. The Vietnam conflict was tearing us up. We were going through a tough, tough period. It was Muhammad, and Howard Cosell, too, in his defense of Muhammad, who stood up for authenticity and integrity at a difficult time. Fighting for justice, standing your ground, paying a price for telling the truth as you saw it. And where did that come from? Boxing, possibly the most corrupt of all professional sports."

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