In his heyday, the first one anyway, George Foreman was little more than a complicated delivery system for pain, a surly man whose windup malevolence found a peculiar commercial and barely legal application in boxing. If you remember, he was rewarded beyond all get-out, such is our appetite for remorseless destruction—observed at a safe-enough remove, of course. During his championship reign, right up to the moment that Muhammad Ali goofily defused his menace, Foreman's fine-tuned cruelty was essential to his extravagant appeal. He had heard, for example, that a blow to the top of the head was most painful of all, so, in a fiendish filigree that excited some awful cluster of neurons in our own brain stems (and, in a tradition that predated Mike Tyson, created more box office than was thought possible), he was careful to conk his opponents accordingly. He got rich and famous for it and, among many other things, bought a dog for $21,000.
That was actually a couple of heydays ago, and the miracle of Foreman's transformation has been oft-explored, though never really explained. A religious conversion, in the guise of postfight delirium in a Puerto Rico dressing room, may account for his first retirement from boxing, which sent him on an evangelical mission/eating binge. And a financial crunch, after he exhausted his seemingly inexhaustible plunder, is certainly what propelled his comeback at the age of 38 and the weight of who-knows and carried him to one of the most improbable titles in all of sports.
Yet of all his heydays, the current one might be the strangest. Now 54, weight still who-knows, Foreman has somehow emerged from the rubble of his terrible past to become an icon of kindness—still rewarded beyond all get-out, mind you—his jack-o'-lantern smile providing a huge economic advantage over any blow to the top of a head. He stands in his "garage" surveying his (partial) fleet of 28 exotic automobiles; he flies to his HBO broadcasting duties in a private jet; he strides across his ranch in Marshall, Texas, inspecting his herd of Icelandic stallions; he walks through construction at his new home in suburban Houston, pointing out where the indoor koi pond will be, the whole idea of it being that he and his wife would have a place to sit in the air conditioning and argue in comfort. Otherwise, he hadn't wanted the spread.
His new wealth is staggering—this is the heyday of all heydays—and his celebrity, even as he turns more to a life of good deeds, just keeps exploding. It's partly the grill or it's mostly the grill, a kitchen appliance launched in the mid-1990s that carries his name, his crazily exaggerated grin and his implied promise of satisfaction in all things. But something else resonates in his weird celebrity, besides the luck of placing 50 million of these fat-sluicing grilling machines in kitchens throughout the world, or Ron Popeil would be more beloved than he is. There is something else about George Foreman, something he communicates in that forced smile of his, that has us keening for a piece of him, shoving paper in front of him for autographs, hollering his name for a shared glance, hoping for a hug in an airport lobby.
Is it simply the reassuring idea of personal reinvention in our do-it-yourself age, when any public evidence of change seems to enhance our own middling prospects? Is it simply the idea, demonstrated in Foreman's ever-growing wealth and wisdom, that the cosmos remains tickled by ambition, amused by our makeovers, tolerant of our persistent and feeble stabs at psychic reorganization? You could buy that championship dog! You could become a heavyweight king, a preacher, a gadget huckster, a millionaire—centimillionaire—rancher! You could have a youth center, a jet, a hospital floor named after you, a koi pond where you don't have to dab your perspiring neck to see fat, colorful fish swimming about for your pleasure.
Serial self-improvement is, by Foreman's example, not only possible but apparently inescapable. His seamless transmutations from bully to preacher, thug to smiling uncle figure, poor kid to business mogul, are exciting to us all. There are second acts, third acts, as many as you're willing to play. You just need some energy, some lucky interventions, an appetite for revelation. It will all come to you.
Of course, it's not free. Nothing is free. The toll of such personal improvement is sufficiently high that it discourages most amateurs, or else we'd all have indoor koi ponds and worry about children poorer than our own. People who know George Foreman and find themselves on his e-mail list might guess at his torment. Every morning they wake up, and there's a fresh batch of messages from the big buffoon, the time tags being the only suggestion of his residual anguish. "How's Lovey?" he writes promoter Bob Arum, whose wife once had a cancer scare. Or to his partner in that fantastic Foreman Grill empire: "If the skewer is square, instead of round, the meat won't slip when it rotates." They flood out of his computer in these wee Texas hours, 3 a.m., 4 a.m., when people less dedicated to personal renovation—less subject to remorse, anyway, less likely to examine the bedrock of cruelty upon which all is built, certainly—sleep like babies.
Leon Dreimann took over Salton, Inc., in 1987, when its product line was thin and weird. The company had been famous and successful in the postwar years with the Hotray, an electric serving platter. But by the time Dreimann was brought in, the firm had only $8 million in sales, at least some of it from a radio that was made to float in a swimming pool.
Dreimann developed a hit with a sandwich maker but, in a novelty-driven industry, was always an appliance away from real success. By 1994 the company was again mired in do-nothing inventory, still looking for that breakaway gizmo—this year's food processor, next season's robot vacuum cleaner.
It was about then that Dreimann heard from a Los Angeles attorney named Sam Perlmutter, whose big idea was to put a notorious consumer of cheeseburgers, say George Foreman, in an infomercial with a cheeseburger cooker. The machine was there, had been there. (Dreimann had the product on his shelf in Chicago.) It just needed some marketing genius and a distributing arm. And a cheeseburger eater.