While much will be written about the passing of Muhammad Ali, he does leave us with a theatrical footnote. I’m speaking of his single Broadway role, as the lead in the musical Buck White. Oscar Brown Jr. directed (with Jean Pace) in addition to adapting Joseph Dolan Tuotti’s play Big Time Buck White, and writing the lyrics and music. It lasted only five days in 1969, during the period when Ali had been suspended from boxing due to his refusal to join the Army and fight in Vietnam.
It’s interesting to note that while he had taken on the name of Muhammad Ali several years earlier when he joined the Nation of Islam, his Broadway appearance ultimately saw him billed by his earlier name, which he had denounced as his slave name, Cassius Clay, though ‘Muhammad Ali aka’ appeared in smaller type above it. He had also recorded an album, I Am The Greatest, as Clay.
While the review in the New York Times for Buck White carried a sub-headline which declared that “Champion Does Himself Proud in Musical,” the Times critic Clive Barnes, who generally didn’t care for the show, was somewhat more guarded in description of Clay/Ali’s performance in the review itself, writing, “How is Mr. Clay? He emerges as a modest, naturally appealing man; he sings with a pleasant slightly impersonal voice, acts without embarrassment and moves with innate dignity. You are aware that he is not a professional performer only when he is not performing.”
Although it was promised on the title page of the play, there is no evidence that a cast recording of Buck White was ever made. However Ali’s performance was partially preserved thanks to The Ed Sullivan Show, which featured a number on its then dominant Sunday evening broadcast:
There’s also footage of Ali performing a number from the show, possibly in the theatre or perhaps at another venue. Intriguingly, there are cuts to another character who seems to almost unmistakably be played by the original Man of La Mancha, Richard Kiley, even though Kiley didn’t appear in Buck White. The footage is found in a documentary about Ali, and the voice of a narrator, an interview clip with Ali and even some offstage footage, punctuate the clip.
Ali made a very few other forays into acting, but never again on stage. He played himself in the poorly received bio pic The Greatest, as well as appearing as himself on an episode of Diff’rent Strokes. He did play one more dramatic role, co-starring with Kris Kristofferson in the TV movie Freedom Road.
Ultimately, Ali expressed himself best as himself… in the ring, in his often hilarious interplay with sportcaster Howard Cosell, as an entertainer who sometimes spoke in verse, and as a man who spoke and traveled constantly as a messenger of goodwill and philanthropy. His greatest role was that of Muhammad Ali, and he was sublime.