The next day produced a similar pandemonium and a new revelation. When the crush of autograph seekers became too great, Dreimann hustled Foreman to an upstairs booth. From there Foreman noticed a woman holding a photo of him, and she seemed upset, maybe in tears. Foreman demanded that she be brought up to him. He signed her picture.
Even so, Dreimann didn't really have a handle on his celebrity endorser. He had agreed to a deal, which seems preposterous in hindsight, to make Foreman a partner, not just a pitchman. Foreman would get a 45% split, to Salton's 40% (Perlmutter and another partner got the rest), which was no worry to Dreimann. Forty-five percent of nothing is what he figured. Even with infomercials featuring footage of Foreman knocking out Moorer, not to mention the magical fat-draining properties of the grill, the machine sat on the shelves for the next 18 months.
But Dreimann had underestimated, and misunderstood, Foreman's corpulent charm. On the advice of a friend at Macy's, who told him women buyers were not especially motivated to buy kitchen aids by the salesman's punching power, Dreimann removed the boxing footage and replaced it with hastily shot film of Foreman, pared down to his humanity now, grilling with his sons. "It took us 30 minutes to get that 30 seconds," Dreimann says, "and overnight sales went berserk."
Foreman was a born salesman, so enthusiastic. In fact, he'd always been awed by others' ability to sell products people didn't need or even want. When he was a boy in that little shotgun house in Houston's tough Fifth Ward, a house with few furnishings and no carpets, a vacuum-cleaner salesman once materialized at the door, dressed in a tie and jacket and armed with patter. In a spasm of entertainment that has Foreman rapt in memory, the man proceeded to drive George's mother even deeper into debt with this wonderful and, for her, entirely useless appliance. For months, to their mother's utter shame, George and his three brothers marched through the house playing the vacuum-cleaner tubes like trombones.
He would do anything, travel anywhere to sell the grill, which, after all, was 45% his. But it was his natural good humor—a quality that to this day baffles anybody who knew him before his first retirement—that ended up selling the grill. Once, doing a sell on QVC, the host was going on and on about the grill, to no apparent effect, when Foreman absentmindedly picked up a cooking cheeseburger and ate it. "They have red lights in the studio," says Dreimann, "so that if the phones really start ringing, all available personnel will report to handle calls." Nobody knew what had happened that day until they went back to look at the tapes and discovered that Foreman, chewing away, had in his own hunger triggered an explosion of calls.
Neither Foreman nor Dreimann had to guess whether any of this was finally working. Foreman, who had hoped to make a million dollars out of this enterprise, was getting monthly partnership checks of $5,000, $10,000, then $100,000. In 1997, the week of his bout with Shannon Briggs, which turned out to be his last fight, his attorney came to his room in Atlantic City with an oversized check for more than $1 million, that month's payment. Foreman lost that fight by decision (a bad one, most agree) but could not be coaxed into complaint. In the ring afterward he patted fellow HBO analyst Larry Merchant on the top of the head and, smiling, advised him to buy a George Foreman Lean, Mean Grilling Machine. "No home should be without this thing," he told the audience. "Go get one."
In 1999, when the checks began to approach $4 million a month and Dreimann felt the product might be plateauing, Salton offered to purchase Foreman's name, effectively buying him out of the partnership, for $1375 million. It was a dizzying offer—among athletes, perhaps only Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods have made larger endorsement deals—but Foreman was reluctant to take it. He liked pitching the grill too much, and he wasn't fighting anyway. (Unbeknownst to him, he had retired, his career left behind more than a year earlier when his wife, Joan, and his attorney decided to keep him so busy that he wouldn't have time to train or fight.)
In the end Foreman took the money, and Dreimann, who says the company has sold some 50 million grills, kept him in the advertising-goodwill fold. Dreimann routinely jets Foreman off to South America or England to kick off a campaign in less saturated markets. Foreman gets paid for these jaunts but does them mostly out of possessiveness. These are, after all, George Foreman Grills, as iconic an appliance as has ever been invented. Really, outside of the Franklin stove, is there any product so singly identified by celebrity? Plus, it drains the fat.
Foreman had been rich and famous before but had not been very good at it. He had been, by his own admission, entirely ignorant. Obnoxious, actually. Following the example of his old stablemate Sonny Liston, he rarely signed autographs. Liston would sign two or three, tops. That's good for me, too, decided Foreman. What he didn't know was that Liston was illiterate and that those two or three autographs represented more effort than a full-blown card-signing show for most celebrities. Poor Sonny was drawing his name. But Liston was Foreman's only available mentor at the time and so supplied him with all his cues for public surliness. Foreman instructed reporters to be brief and not repeat their questions—the heavyweight king's time was valuable. Once, when New York Times columnist Red Smith started to address him at a press conference, Foreman cut him off, saying, "I'll tell you when to ask a question."
Being newly rich was easily as problematic. Once, in his prime, Foreman admired a Cadillac owned by the football player Hewritt Dixon. "One day, when you're champ," Dixon told him, "you'll have a fleet of Cadillacs." Upon becoming the champion, Foreman dutifully assembled a fleet of Caddies. Another time, well on his way to riches, he was asked if he owned a Rolls. "I had to find out what a Rolls was," Foreman says, "then I had to get me one."