• Musser

The Greatest

I was pretty fresh out of college and found a job at WLYH-TV in Mt. Gretna, Pennsylvania. It was a CBS affiliate stuck on top of a small mountain near Lebanon and served Central Pennsylvania. Rudy, the guy who directed the local nightly news there and some local commercials, was a bit older but much wiser (at least, in television production matters). There weren't many working there, especially creative folks, so we became fast friends. We were talking one day about my education being in documentary filmmaking. This prompted me to pose, "Wouldn't it be great to make a documentary together?" "Like what?," he quickly answered. "Gosh, I don't know... I'd always thought it'd be great to do a profile of someone like Mohammed Ali... something not staged or scripted. Just shoot whatever happens." Rudy lit up. "I know where his training camp is. It's near my parent's home. I think we should just drive there and ask him if he's interested." Well, at that time in my life, I would've never thought of such a thing. I'm bolder now. A few sentences further, we'd planned on the day we'd visit his training camp (in Northeast Pennsylvania... I don't remember the closest town). We got there, walked the grounds a bit, and was eventually greeted by someone who, I guess, watched who was coming and going (mind you, this was decades ago, when people just did things and you weren't shot for it). "We'd like to talk with Mr. Ali about doing a documentary film," Rudy spouted out. I shook my head and smiled in support. "Follow me," he said , like he heard this everyday... which he may have. We followed him, happily. He took us to a log cabin in the complex (mostly, there only were log structures there and a lot of pine trees). We tentatively walked in. "You can wait here. He's having breakfast. I'll let him know you're waiting." Rudy and I looked at one another, almost giggling, but trying to feel like we did this sort of thing all the time. It was a small room. Newspapers and magazines stacked everywhere. The only accessible furnishings was a smallish couch and... a rub-down table. "Oh, wait... we're sitting on the rub-down table," I stated in dramatic form. That placed us looking at the small couch with one of the seats stacked with some old newspapers. There we were, sitting on Mohammed Ali's Boxing Camp Rub-down Table waiting for Ali to show up and talk with us. We were giddy with our ballsy move. We sat there swinging our legs in anticipation and telling ourselves we weren't just young punks employing a bold move (it didn't work for me, I can attest). After about 45 minutes, the doorknob turns. The door opens. It's Ali. "Hey, guys." My face felt hot. We both responded with, "Hi." As he began to sit down on the available seat of the small couch, and without looking at us, he added, "So, you guys want to do a documentary... of ME?" "Ahh, yessir. A documentary." He looked down at the stack of newspapers beside him and began to tear a corner of a page from the top. "Well, you do know I AM THE GREATEST BOXER of all time, don't you?" "Oh, yessir, of course," we wheezed in unison. He was now rolling the torn corner of newspaper into a point and began picking his teeth. "So..." (long pause)... "How much do I get?" Rudy and I looked at one another in shielded surprise. We'd never thought about that. We'd just assumed it'd be wonderful for him to have an honest, intimate documentary produced about his daily life. Isn't that enough? "Ahh..." we both questioned, then Rudy finished, "We hadn't thought that far. But, whatever is equitable." With that, Ali flicked his rolled up newspaper toothpick on the floor, stood up, and walked to the door. He opened it and, without looking at us even yet, said, "When you boys figure that out, you can get back to me." And, he floated through the door. As we left that log cabin room, stunned, and walked toward our car, we pretty much agreed that we were way out of our element and didn't have a clue what we were doing. But, damn, it was fun trying. Rudy went on to become one of ABC-TV's go-to primetime producers and director of their nightly news programs. I became an unknown visual designer and, eventually, a creative director for a few companies. The older I get, the less fight I have in me. If only I'd learned to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

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