Ali once told me that "If you're the same man at 50 that you were at 20, you wasted 30 years of your life."
Vallejo graduate builds friendship with The Champ
Even as scriptwriter Gregory Allen Howard returns to Vallejo for a holiday respite, he can't help but marvel at the changes. Not so much in the city where he graduated from high school, but the surrounding communities.
"It was redneck back in the 1970s. We played football in the day because when we played at night, there were riots," Howard said. "Napa had this reputation then. Now it's called 'The Wine Country.' When people ask me where Vallejo is, I tell them that Napa is 9 miles away."
"I never thought I'd be giving out Napa as a point of reference. That's scary."
What's scary is Howard's meteoric rise to the top of Hollywood's writers-in-demand. On the heels of the hit Remember the Titans with Denzel Washington, Howard wrote Ali, the story of The Greatest starring Will Smith that opened nationally on Christmas.
"Denzel is a pro. He's done this for 25 years and barely needs any directing, "Howard said. "But Will was taking on the biggest acting challenge of his career. He hadn't been at it very long, really. But if you close your eyes, he sounds exactly like Ali. It gives you chills. It's an almost miraculous transformation."
Even during a Christmas hiatus from hyping Ali, Howard was gracious enough to grant a phone interview while visiting his parents for three days. A five-year resident of Alexandria, Va., Howard returns to Vallejo three or four times a year.
Knowing the challenge of endless press tours, it could be some time before he sees Vallejo again.
"Remember the Titans prepared me for this," Howard said. "After I wrote that movie and it got made, I thought I'd be able to return to my life. That it would be a week of publicity appearances."
Not so fast. Howard was called to duty "for one solid year" to publicize the story of an African-American coach guiding an integrated football team to the title in an overly racist town.
"My last appearance for Titans was three months ago," Howard said. "There was one weekend where I had four appearances. Three in L.A. and one in San Jose."
Eventually, "I had to shut it down," Howard said. "It's good for the ego, but I'm a writer. I have to sit in a room lonely for weeks and write. I didn't want to be rude, but I couldn't give any more interviews."
With the success of Titans, released in 2000, Howard knew what he was in for with Ali, a much-ballyhooed biopic of the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time.
Not that he didn't have the time to think about it. Howard was actually hired to write Ali by producer Jon Peters in 1995.
Howard worked a year on the script, noting it was "a very painstaking process. Ali was not a great source. He doesn't dwell on the past at all. But slowly and surely, we put it all together and came up with the script."
Few people may have thought Smith was ideal for the role six years ago, including Smith.
"Will was 25 years old at the time and no way was he ready psychologically to play Ali," Howard said. "It was a huge undertaking. It's one thing to play someone who has been dead for 50 years. But Ali is, arguably, the most well-known man on Earth. And he's still alive. I think it scared Will."
"Still, Smith was the only actor considered," Howard said.
"The one who played Ali had to have a close physical resemblance," Howard said, though "Hollywood often develops scripts and has no idea who to put in them. That happens all the time."
Larry Fishburne? "He was too old five years ago, not saying he couldn't have done it," Howard said.
Cuba Gooding Jr.? "He's 5-8. You would have to find a 5-5 Joe Frazier," Howard said. "Everything would have had to be scaled down."
Other than pinning Smith's ears down, the 6-2 1/2 actor was ideal to play the 6-3 Ali. Howard said, not that the role was automatic.
"Acting any role is daunting enough," Howard said. "Even more daunting is when the character is famous. Even more daunting is when you add the third component, which is selling Smith as a boxer."
On top of that, Howard added, "this was before Men in Black. Will was 'The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.'"
Admittedly, "I had my doubts," Howard said.
Smith proved everyone wrong, the screenwriter insisted.
"The Ali shuffle is virtually impossible to copy, but Will learned how to move like Ali. He studied boxing and accomplished so much of it in a year," Howard said.
Smith also bulked up, going from his slight 185 pounds to a solid 225.
"He strikes a pose in the movie and he looks like Mr. Universe," Howard said. "It's the most amazing transformation."
Working with Smith was one thing. Becoming friends with Ali was something else, Howard said.
"They (the producers of Ali) didn't want me to meet him until I finished the script," Howard said. "They were afraid I would get seduced. And I would have. He is my absolute hero.
Howard first met The Champ in a Beverly Hills hotel room. Apparently, they hit if off. Ali invited Howard to join him on a trip to Cuba with $2 million in medical supplies. From there, Ali would link up with Howard whenever he was in Washington, D.C.
"I've been very blessed to meet my idol, then write about him," Howard said, adding that nobody should feel sorry for the former fighter, stricken with Parkinson's Disease.
"The thing about Ali is that he's very self-aware," Howard said. "He knows exactly who the hell he is."
What Howard has learned knowing Ali is "how sweet and humble he is. And I learned, through him, how you treat everyone the same."
Yes, the writer said, books, TV shows and movies have been done about Ali.
"Most of what was done about Ali was never critical," Howard said.
The movie, he said, includes Ali's less-than-saintly behavior. Muhammad Ali in the 1970s is not the same Muhammad Ali who has been an Olympic torch bearer. Nobody knows that more than Ali.
"Ali once told me that 'If you're the same man at 50 that you were at 20, you wasted 30 years of your life." Howard said.
Howard acknowledged that Ali isn't for everyone.
"Is it The Way We Were? No. It may not be the classic date move," Howard said. "But women want to see anything Will is in."
Then again, noted Howard, "this may not be for men over 35" who know the good, bad and ugly of Ali's life.
"This was really needed for teenagers who know Ali as a middle-aged man who walks and talks slowly," Howard said. "It exposes a generation of young boys to what Ali was like when he was young who can't fathom what it was like."
While today's athletes "are so self-exposed, whining about money," Ali was none of that.
"At the apex of his fame, he had two suits," Howard said. "And he never looks back. You'll never hear an 'I wish this' from Ali. He doesn't dwell on the past. He's living today."
As for Howard, when the attention subsides, he's off to finish a script about the drummer boys of the Civil Was for Disney Pictures. Along the route, he'll surely return to where he spent time as a Vallejo High School student.
"Since I'm from a Navy family, we moved all over the country," Howard said. "But as much as anywhere, I call Vallejo home."