How long has Ali, the movie about the heavyweight boxing champ, been kicking around Hollywood:
"When I first got hired, they said to write it for Lawrence Fishburne," says the film's scriptwriter, Gregory Allen Howard. "At the time, Larry was already too old for the part." And Will Smith - who eventually signed on - hadn't yet made Independence Day or Men in Black. He was still just the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
"We had to wait for Will Smith to grow up," says Howard, who lives in Alexandria. The movie open on Christmas Day.
Ali was the 16th script Howard wrote, though it was among the first he sold. When Ali's executive producer took Howard to meet Muhammad Ali's wife Lonnie, who's very protective of her Parkinson's-stricken husband, Lonnie looked at the then-unknown scriptwriter and said, "I don't know why they didn't get someone more famous."
Howard, now 39, let it roll off his back. After all, the meeting was almost a decade ago - long before Howard's Remember the Titans became a $115-million hit, not to mention the equivalent of a Vince Lombardi pep talk for teams such as the Miami Dolphins. The Titans movie recalls how coach Herman Boone (played by Denzel Washington) was brought in to help smooth the 1971 integration process at Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School.
After reading "a closetful of articles" and videos of all the Ali fights, Howard ended up spending a year with the man, whom he describes as "cool and mellow, very Zenlike." He traveled with the three-time heavyweight champion to Cuba to meet Fidel Castro, Ali spent the trip whispering questions to Howard, a Princeton history major.
The movie covers a decade of Ali's life, from fighting Sonny Liston (1969) to the Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman (1974). Many of the small details Howard got from his research - not from Ali directly.
"You can't get Ali to talk about the past. He has no interest in it," says Howard. "He doesn't need this movie psychically or financially."