Filmmaker Leon Gast may have won the best documentary Oscar for “When We Were Kings,” but Muhammad Ali deserves a piece of that gold-plated statue as well.
While shooting some of the now iconic footage of Ali training for his heavyweight championship bout with George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, it turns out the boxer took a swing at camera placement during a 5 a.m. run.
“He said, ‘If you put your camera there, I’ll come around that turn and you’ll get a beautiful shot of the sun coming out,'” Gast recalled to the Daily News.
“He was pretty much directing that scene.”
Gast, a boxing enthusiast who had been an Ali fan since he watched a young Cassius Clay paste Billy Daniels at Manhattan’s St. Nicholas Arena in 1962, stumbled into filming the buildup to “Rumble in the Jungle.”
Gast had intended to make a documentary about a music festival in Kinshasa featuring James Brown and other big name performers. But the funds dried up and he received an endorsement from promoter Don King to make Ali the focus instead.
A cut over Foreman’s eye delayed the fight for weeks — which just gave more time to film interviews with Ali.
“He was that larger than life presence, but he was a regular guy,” says Gast. “He was a joker, he was always fooling around.
“He’d go around behind Howard Cosell and he would make believe that he was picking up (the broadcaster’s) toupee.”
Fresh off a number of high profile knockouts, Foreman was a heavy favorite to demolish Ali, who was considered past his prime. Spending all that time watching Ali just obliterate the speed-bag, though, gave Gast rare insight.
“Hunter S. Thompson bet me that Foreman would win at 3-to-1 odds,” says Gast, who took the wager.
“I won $150, and Hunter Thompson wrote me a check. I just wish I hadn’t cashed it, because it would be worth thousands today.”
It took Gast and producer David Sonenberg 22 years of battling an injunction and wrangling funding to get “When We Were Kings” to the big screen.
By the time the movie finally spooled at Radio City Music Hall for a February 1997 premiere, it had already been drawing rave reviews. But the most important one to Gast came from Ali.
“My friend (journalist) Jack Newfield was sitting next to Ali and Muhammad was poking him in the elbow every time he saw a scene that he liked.”
Newfield ended up getting poked a lot that night.