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Jeff Simon: Ken Burns hits the right mark in his latest for PBS, 'Muhammad Ali'

Jeff Simon: Ken Burns hits the right mark in his latest for PBS, 'Muhammad Ali'

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I choked up a little the last time I tried to tell our family's Muhammad Ali story to a colleague. I think you'll understand why when I explain.

My daughter was 7 when my late wife and I decided the time was right to expose her to one of our favorite places on earth: New York City, with its theater and myriad other pleasures.

Because we were a family now, we got a suite in a huge, family friendly hotel, the New York Hilton. One morning, at breakfast, the hotel's mammoth coffee shop was joined for breakfast by Muhammad Ali and a much-smaller friend. They sat in a booth two tables away from us, close enough for us to hear him order a pot of tea during a lull.

Which, ended summarily in a flash, as the entire room became a conflagration of whispers, hisses, dumbfounded exclamations and happy chirps. "ALI!" The word was getting out.

I had never heard anything like that sound before. I have been in a number of rooms full of famous people, whose presence had been both expected and unexpected. This, though, was something new, a sound mixing awe and ecstasy as everyone suddenly understood who was going to be sharing our eggs, French toast, pancakes and cereal that morning.

To further dramatize what was going on, what looked like the entire kitchen emptied out. A long horizontal line of dishwashers, cooks, waitresses and waiters stood behind the coffee shop's Formica counter and gawked at the fellow two tables away from us.

Who was served his pot of tea with seemly rapidity but who found it close to impossible to drink it.

What he wound up doing instead was dealing with an apparently endless line of autograph seekers and kibitzers who wanted their few seconds of proximity to one of the most famous – and by then beloved – human beings in the world.

In our attempt to be sensitive to a genuine monolith of renown, my wife and I resolutely refused to join the line of supplicants. Somebody had to respect the poor guy's simple desire for a pot of tea and we volunteered. Until, that is, our daughter didn't really understand our commitment to thoughtfulness. This was not a battle worth fighting, at that moment, so my wife tore a napkin in half, gave my daughter a pen and, at an opportune second, told her to go up and ask for an autograph.

So my daughter sidled over to his table during a break in the line and gingerly laid the napkin and pen on his table.


At this point, I must tell you that our ultra-adorable 7-year-old was going through one of childhood's more tormenting self-conscious moments. She had brand new glasses with the big frames that were fashionable back then. And a gaping hole in her front teeth where a tooth had formerly been.

We instantly understood. Ali was what is now sometimes called a "girl Dad." He immediately intuited an entire emotional condition, personality and history from her shyness and was going to blast it to smithereens with generous and self-evidently real love for the human species – particularly that part of it that is female and under 4 feet tall.

I still get misty thinking of it.

She tried to give him a hug but couldn't begin to manage it. Her entire wingspan didn't begin to be wide enough. She could reach from one shoulder to another. Ali was a very wide man with huge shoulders. He, of course, had no trouble hugging her – with a father's tenderness, not a boxer's camaraderie. And signing her napkin.

He won the eternal love and loyalty of her parents from that second on.

That personality is the Ali which, among many other virtues, one sees constantly in Ken Burns' four-part "Muhammad Ali" that begins on Sunday evening on Channel 17 (PBS) and continues for four straight nights.

One reason that it is such a rich tapestry of Ali's unparalleled engagement with American love and the respect and reverence that accompany it is that this epic documentary for PBS is a father-daughter affair. Burns' co-authors and co-producers are his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband, David McMahon.

It is an exceptional and almost unfailingly entertaining piece of work – the product of six years of labor. And as with all of Burns' output via PBS does, it is lavishly peppered with historical scholarship and documentary footage both familiar and entirely unfamiliar.

In Burns' words, Ali was "arguably America's greatest athlete." As such, he was a giant candidate for familiar and not-so-familiar storytelling.

You may know that Burns' relationship with PBS is a subject of considerable bitterness among other documentary filmmakers who have no difficulty airing their bitterness as so many remain in darkness while Burns' relationship with PBS blots out the sun for everyone else.

I would be a monster if I didn't sympathize with them. But that doesn't change the fact that all four nights of "Muhammad Ali" – which I've seen – are terrific television, superbly grounded in the populist history of the great three-time heavyweight champion of the boxing world.

For all the love and adoration and respect and admiration that now clusters around his name, Ali was equally known in his lifetime by worshipers, fans and intractable enemies in varying proportions throughout his life.

For every Ali fan and admirer, there were an equivalent number of those who considered him an American and inevitable symbol of homegrown self-indulgence and corruption.

Ali was the most public dissenter from the Vietnam War, that generational nightmare that plucked young men from anonymity and peppered them with their "duty" to deprive Viet Cong of their lives for the sake of geopolitical strategy.

It was, Richard Nixon himself, bless him, who ended that. But this is a portrait of the populist Ali, hero AND villain.

Ali wasn't only the most famous of Vietnam dissenters, he was, arguably, the most effectual, ultimately. He was sentenced to do real time. Finally, the Supreme Court said no.

In his generation, we sympathized completely. To men who remembered Korea and World War II, he was often thought of as a subversive or an "ingrate" – as if American citizenship for those of darker skin was a privilege and not a right.

His struggles on the narrow beliefs of his life as a Muslim are limned brilliantly, as is his career in boxing, a paradoxical sport whose stature, at the time, made it one of our most important but which has dwindled hugely over time.

There's no question that Burns' "Ali" was designed to mythologize Ali in the way that Burns once mythologized jazz. But I admire Burns for his attentions to subjects that have often been shoved to the rear of Ali's life and times.

There's no question that Burns' "Muhammad Ali" was designed to please those of us who are Ali partisans. But I admire the Burns' family for being more than just Ali mythologists.

Ali's role in what became the assassination of Malcolm X is by no means causational. But there's no doubt that Ali's support for Elijah Muhammad vs. Malcolm contributed to the climate, inside the Nation of Islam, which made his assassination possible.

In the final episode of Burns' epic, Ali is revealed to have regretted his Malcolm stand late in life. We're also told, he regretted the incredibly vicious publicity blow-torching of Joe Frazier, which Frazier himself, never forgave, no matter how much both of their incomes benefited.

To those of us inclined to indulge Ali almost everything, Burns and his family's thoughtful biography peppers the recipe with very unpalatable moments.

But then as Burns and Co. knew, some tales are so big that none of us really has the wingspan to embrace them all.

Only history and time can do that.

In the meantime, we can merely watch in amazement at the singular and glorious happenstances in one giant American life.

Whatever Ali may have intended at the beginning of his epic life, he became something else when the procession to his table continued, so far, in a line that is entirely without end.

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Semi-Retired Columnist and Critic

Jeff Simon began working at The News as a copyboy 57 years ago. Since that time, he has been closely involved in all aspects of The News' cultural coverage – as critic, columnist and Arts and Books editor for 25 years.

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