Not surprisingly, Neiman normally avoids the art crowd. He's far more at home with pop celebrities. Here he is at Bo Derek's ranch in Santa Ynez, Calif. Derek hasn't commissioned a painting. "I've just always wanted to do her," Neiman says. "Somebody will want to buy Bo Derek by LeRoy Neiman."
Derek is riding a gray Andalusian stallion around the corral, her mane of honey-blonde hair waving in time with the horse's gait. Neiman leans back on a bench, sketching. His shirt is fuchsia, socks mauve, cigar Mexican.
"Bo is so aware of how she looks from every angle that she's completely natural," Neiman says. "That's vanity at its finest." This doesn't put Neiman off in the least. His motto: "You have to draw subjects the way they intend to present themselves."
Neiman draws the Perfect 10 in sugary pastels, starting with the hair and rounding off her edges until the figure becomes another Playboy mannequin. He does three quick sketches. "I'm drawing nature," Neiman says. "The feeling of the wild, primitive life. It's a humbling experience to be before such a magnificent animal." It's unclear whether he means Bo or the horse.
The next day Neiman is behind the batting cage at Dodger Stadium, shmoozing with Eli Wallach and Danny Kaye as Tommy Lasorda joins in. "I've been trying since '81 to get that——ing portrait you did of me," says Lasorda. "Sinatra——ing told me you'd give it to me."
"I'm cleaning it up," says Neiman. "I still haven't gotten all the profanity out."
"Neiman supplies images of superiority to people who are thankful they're...average."
—PETER PLAGENS, painter and art critic
Neiman considers the working class his critic. "There's great dignity in working people," he says. "Nobody has more dignity than the dishwasher or the guy who picks the cigarettes off casino floors." Asked whether he would care to know any of the great unwashed personally, he replies, with mock disdain, "Hell no, I don't fraternize with those people." Neiman doesn't waste any time painting them either. "There are plenty of artists taking care of that," he says. "I prefer only the fittest, the finest and the richest to populate my paintings. I only do great sports paintings of great athletes."
The one transcendent athlete in Neiman's pantheon is Muhammad Ali. In fact, it was Ali who first sparked Neiman's more intimate involvement with athletes as people. He met Ali in 1962, and has painted him dozens of times. "Ali's the one athlete who looked the same his entire career," Neiman says.
He visits Ali at his home, a well-guarded, 22-room Victorian mansion in Wilshire in Los Angeles. Ali is taking down his chandeliers and packing to move. He says he's going to get a mobile home and spread the word of Islam.