Neiman is a genuinely warm and endearing fellow who is unabashedly delighted by and appreciative of his own success. "I'm a spectator to my own career," he says. "People fail because they don't use good judgment at the proper time. Something stops them at the moment of opportunity."
Early in his life, Neiman began grabbing at opportunity like a gymnast seizing the uneven bars. He grew up in Frogtown, a tough section of St. Paul. His father was a roustabout who despite perfect eyesight affected glasses while working on the road gangs. A corner of Charley Neiman's chin was missing. "Dad always said it was shot off in a barroom brawl," says LeRoy. "That might have been b.s., but I accepted it. It added to his mystique."
When he was six, Neiman was drawing comic strips for fun. He always crayoned in a tall, black figure in a top hat. It was Abraham Lincoln. Years later, while researching Lincoln photos for a magazine cover, he came to the conclusion that the Great Emancipator was "a vain, p.r.-oriented kind of guy. He was the first public figure to exploit photography. He created the persona of the good guy. He created Abraham Lincoln! Because of Lincoln, I realized you could develop your personal image into a positive thing."
Neiman has gone on to build his own image with mustache and cigar. Everybody assumes the mustache is modeled after Salvador Dali's. "If anything," protests Neiman, "it was inspired by Clark Gable's." But Dali had something to do with it. When they posed together for a picture in a New York restaurant, the photographer asked Neiman to get rid of his smoky stogie. "Don't do it!" Dali advised him. "It's a great prop."
Neiman is no fool. While he may be a bad painter, he is not a mediocre one. For what he gives us is an art that is not just superficial and infinitely sleazy but [one] that communicates superficiality and sleaze with unblushing zest and unerring articulateness.
—FRANZ SCHULZE, artist and critic
Vegas, with all its flash and filigree, suggests nothing so much as a giant Neiman canvas, but Neiman says he doesn't really like the town. He's only there at this moment to attend the heavyweight title fight between Larry Holmes and Michael Spinks. He did the artwork for the tickets, the program cover and a poster hawked at the souvenir stands. Now he will do a painting of the fight itself.
The day before the bout, Neiman is sitting in a booth in the Riviera coffee shop with Holmes and Don King, the boxing promoter who commissioned Neiman's fight picture. Neiman playfully bites the hand that fed him. "Larry," he says. "I've always felt that Don is just a sketch, but you are a painting."
King, unfazed by the painterly put-down, launches into an impromptu critique of Neiman's oeuvre. "LeRoy strives for excellence and makes it par excellence," says King. "LeRoy can do more with a paintbrush than a monkey can with a peanut. The monkey can snatch the essence of a peanut without destroying the shell. LeRoy captures the universe, puts the image on canvas and gives it eternal life. His paintings speak in all dialects and many tongues. When Neiman does a tennis ball, it's a tennis ball personified. A Neiman is alive, it has a pulse and a heart. His magic wand profounds and astounds. As Mark Antony said, 'Age cannot wither it, nor custom stem its infinite variety.' Now that's talking, Jack."
Neiman appraises King soberly. "A little moderate," he says at last, "but you got the point across."
Art critic Hilton Kramer was asked for a few thoughts on LeRoy Neiman. He replied, "That might be difficult. I never think of him."