by Rupert Hitzig
It was 1965.
Howard Cosell said it best ... Before his Nov. 22, 1965 fight with Floyd Patterson; Ali called the former heavyweight champ an "Uncle Tom." He was angry that Patterson refused to call him Muhammad Ali, but continued to call him Clay. Instead of scoring a quick KO, Ali mocked, humiliated and punished Patterson throughout before knocking him out in the 12th round.
I was producing two hours of talk show television daily for Metromedia when the fight took place ... a show that was similar to the Regis and Kelly Show of today. It was called THE NEW YORKERS.
We searched for hosts ... week by week we gave chances to people that had never before hosted their own shows, like Burt Convy, Regis Philbin, Kreskin, Henry Morgan, Valerie Harper, and even Vidal Sassoon. It was a glorious time, but after all the tryouts, the brass upstairs decided on Skitch ...Skitch Henderson ... the former sidekick to Johnny Carson, a bandleader of some repute, and a putz.
The show started out as just talk, but after a few months I got the okay to add a six piece band, and asked my friend and classmate from Harvard, Joe Raposo, if he wanted to move to New York and work as the musical director on the daily show. At that time, he was a rehearsal pianist at the Charles Theater, and although he went on to compose great songs later in his life, "Sing Sing a Song", "It's Not Easy being Green", moving to New York and doing our show was an opportunity for him that was irresistible..
Of course, nothing is easy, and Skitch Henderson, who fancied himself a great pianist, was envious of Joe, who had studied in Paris with the great Nadia Boulanger. Things between them were getting rough so I confronted their rivalry head on, by ordering up a two piano rendition of Autumn Leaves, and by playing together, and complementing each other's styles, I hoped to find harmony in the piano pit. It might have worked if I hadn't had the crew dump a bag of autumn leaves over Skitch's head for the comedy effect at the end of the piece.
As the Producer, I made it a point to do pre-interviews with each and every guest in my office prior to the show, to be sure that the both the subjects and the questions that were written for the host were comfortable for the guest. It also gave me an opportunity to meet scores of people who were famous at the time.
I was really excited one morning to see that we had booked Muhammad Ali, who had just punished Floyd Patterson for not respecting his name. He was the reigning heavyweight champion with a penchant for poetry, and just his upcoming appearance had everyone from the staff in my office to the cameramen on the floor in a state of euphoria. We couldn't miss with the dynamic presence of our charismatic hero.
He was led to my office for the interview, and the minute he walked in and stood across from me, I knew I was in the presence of greatness.
"Have a seat, Champ," I ventured as I held out my hand. He took it and smiled as I opened the conversation. "That was a hell of a fight, Champ. You know that 43 out of 46 sportswriters picked Patterson?"
"That tko was no good for his health ... down for the count halfway through the twelfth!" he responded with a smile and the verbal rhythm that was so familiar to all of us.
"Champ, I wonder if I ... well .. we've written a poem for you to do at the end of your spot today ... you know, when Skitch thanks you and says goodbye."
"No poem ... no, no, no ... no poetry. I don't do no poetry ... not since I joined the nation of Islam ...
"But you just did."
"I don't do no m'o poetry as Muhammad!"
That's a good topic for today's show ... you know, Muhammad, why you actually changed your name. Can you talk about that ...?"
"The great Elijah Muhammad told me my name Cassius Clay is lackin' "divine meaning." He gave me a Muslim name ..."Muhammad Ali." I have been Muhammad Ali for nearly a year and I don't do no poetry, no more."
"But ... could you just take read it, please, Muhammad ... then, if you don't want ..." I stopped there and slid the piece of paper across towards him. He stared at it on the desk for a few seconds, looked up at me, then picked it up, and dragging his forefinger slowly across the words, mouthed the few words to himself ... slowly.
"I ... like your ... show, and I ... like your style, but you don't pay enough ... so ... I won't be back for awhile."
I waited, silently. Then, his face broke out in a broad smile. He looked back down at the paper, and read it again, a little faster.
"Yeah, I can do that ... that's good. But when, where?"
I told him that I would be out there ... on the studio floor, and that I would signal him when the interview was almost over, and he could read it then. He smiled, stood up, and left my office, taking the piece of paper with him.
The segment with Skitch was a little bit off rhythm. Muhammad or Cassius, it didn't really matter. Although he was charming and energetic, because of the poem, distracted. He had taken the paper and put it on the seat, between his legs, and all during the interview, he would look down at the poem, look over at me for a signal, and then go back to his conversation with Skitch.
Finally, there were fifteen seconds before the end of the spot and a mandatory commercial break. I gave him the signal, and he reached for the paper, and haltingly, still reading, read the poem.
I ... like your show ... I like your style, but you don't pay enough, so I won't be back for awhile.
The audience loved it, even though the reading was still halting and slow.
That night I was in my loft watching the Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson, which came from a studio at NBC New York. Muhammad was a guest, and as I watched from my bed, Johnny was about to say good night when Muhammad stood up, and with the grace of a ballet dancer, moved to the words that rolled off his tongue, with rhythm and pace.
"Johnny, I like your show, and I like your style, but you don't pay me enough, so I won't be back for awhile."
The audience laughed and cheered Muhammad. I turned off the TV and lay there, pleased but conflicted. Should I have copyrighted that?
I didn't get to sleep for a long time.