R.I.P Michael Parkinson, The Man Who Brought Out The Best (and worst) In Muhammad Ali

By James Slater - 08/17/2023 - Comments

A national treasure here in the UK, Michael Parkinson, for so many of us THE king of the chat show hosts, passed away today at the advanced age of 88. Loved by all, welcomed as an interviewer by all (well, almost all, Meg Ryan and her infamous “interview” with Parky is a different story), Parkinson at his peak regularly pulled in millions of TV viewers whenever his show was on.

And just look at the long list of giants Parky sat across from in the studio as he fired off no-limit, unscripted questions:

Clint Eastwood

Orson Welles

Jimmy Cagney

James Stewart

Woody Allen

John Lennon

John Wayne

Fred Astaire

Betty Davis

Lauren Bacall

George Best

Peter Sellers

Paul McCartney

David Bowie

Michael Caine

Will Smith………… and so, so many more.

Including Muhammad Ali.

Four times, Parky interviewed Ali – in 1971, twice in 1974, and in 1981.

All four interviews were magnificent in their own way, with Parkinson somehow being able to bring out in Ali so many emotions and reactions: anger, rage, almost uncontrollable laughter (see Ali’s final appearance on Parkinson, and what comedian Freddie Starr did to him!), pride, satisfaction, and yeah, even fear.

The most famous interview came in late ’74, just after Ali had regained his throne by smashing George Foreman in Africa. As big as the universe, Ali would not hold back on anything when he spoke, his religious beliefs (taught to him by The Nation of Islam) especially. Ali did not like it when Parkinson had the nerve to adopt confrontational tactics in defence of the former champ when the ruling heavyweight champion of the world called Joe Frazier an “Uncle Tom.”

“Oh, he’s not an Uncle Tom,” Parky said in defence of Joe.

“He’s not! Then why does he insist on calling me Cassius Clay?” Ali shot back. “He’s the other type Negro, he’s not like me. There are two types of slaves, Joe Frazier’s worse than you to me! He works for the enemy.”

This was shocking stuff at the time (and Ali’s inflammatory words escalated his rivalry with Frazier, already intense, to a whole other level).

Ali was also angered at the way Parky tried to “trap” him on live TV. Parkinson mentioned earlier in the interview how Ali left school at almost illiterate level, and later, when using quotes about Ali in a book that focuses on his double standards (Ali, preaching a nothing material matters belief, lived in a mansion and owned more than one Rolls Royce, and how Ali said, under Muslin doctrine, that “all white men are devils,” yet he had at the time numerous white guys on his staff) – Ali really lost it.

Looking genuinely angry, Ali felt he had indeed been the victim of a setup, that he had been cornered.

“You can’t beat me mentally or physically,” Ali spat at his host. “You are really a joke.”

Parky laughed, not at all genuinely, waiting for the lovable, jovial and comfortable version of Ali to return, which he did in due course.

But for a while there, either wittingly or unwittingly, Parkinson unnerved and angered Ali in a way none of his ring rivals ever managed. Not even Frazier, apparently.

Yes, Parky interviewed so many giants and his shows are gold today. But no show was more utterly entertaining, indeed thrilling, as the late 1974 interview Parkinson conducted with “The Greatest.”

Parky will be sorely missed. In fact, his great chat show has been missed for many years now.

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