Yet Smith's Ali is so convincing that if Joe Frazier happened by, he might take a swing at Smith. I had so many questions to ask Ali about the film, but he drifted off within 20 minutes of my arrival. I didn't know what to do. I started to kill time when there was this sudden "AIIGGHGH!" It was Ali's Frisbee-eyed, molar-baring face coming at me. After his sons scraped me off the ceiling, I was able to laugh.
I asked Ali what it has been like to be a Muslim in the U.S. since Sept. 11. He said he had not faced any hostility, and then added, "Muslims don't...kill people.... But remember...Judaism...has terrorists.... Baptists...have terrorists.... Catholics...Hindus...all religions have terrorists."
Ali had me pull him off the couch so that he could show me what Islam had taught him. He stood in a doorway, and suddenly his feet appeared to be rising off the carpet!
How'd you do that? I asked.
"Prayer...and...fasting," he said.
He set an empty orange juice glass in the middle of the carpet and asked me, if he made it levitate, would I finally believe in Islam? I nodded, grinning. He quieted his shakes, stared hard at the glass and then announced, "April Fools'!" The man is 59, going on nine.
I made a mistake in teaching him a magic trick, because from then on he wanted only to practice it on anybody who happened into the room. After 90 minutes he really did start to fade. The eyes stayed closed longer than open. "Where...we...at?" he asked. " New York?"
"No," I said. " L.A."
Finally, they stayed closed. Nap time for a legend.
To see Ali young again on the screen, so blurry fast of foot and hand and mouth, is a joy. But it's also a joy to know that this slow Ali, this whispering one, is still with us. In one scene in the movie a woman who had met him when she was a little girl says, "I loved you then. I never stopped. I still do."