On This Day: When Muhammad Ali was a Broadway musical star

American boxer and sometime actor Muhammad Ali stands behind a podium in a stage costume surrounded by young people who raise their fists in the air as he performs an excerpt from 'Buck White' a Broadway musical in which he starred on an episode of Ed Sullivan's 'Toast of the Town,' New York, January 18, 1970. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
Muhammad Ali, centre, stands behind a podium above the crowd in costume as he performs an excerpt from 'Buck White', a Broadway musical, on an episode of The Ed Sullivan Show in New York on 18 January 1970. (Getty Images)

This article is part of Yahoo's 'On This Day' series

Muhammad Ali was many things.

Boxer. Fighter. Activist. Philanthropist. The Greatest.

Oh, and don’t forget star of a Broadway musical.

Among the many accomplishments of Ali, who died in June 2016, was acting.

As the boxer who perfected the art of trash talk before a fight, Ali’s foray on to the boards seemed a natural progression.

After all, the ring was his stage.

Read more: Muhammad Ali was so angered by racism he tossed his Olympic gold in a river

And when he was exiled from his domain between 1967 and 1970 after being denied a boxing licence for refusing to be drafted into the US armed forces fighting the Vietnam War, Ali found other pursuits.

Chief among these was his political activism, speaking at universities across the US against the war in Vietnam and racial injustice.

Muhammad Ali. Cassius Clay. 1970. (Photo by: Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Muhammad Ali swapped the ring for the stage in 1969. (Getty Images)

But he also found time to dabble in a little remembered project - a stint on Broadway.

It is 58 years to the day since Ali, then Cassius Clay, won boxing’s world heavyweight championship on 25 February 1964, by beating Sonny Liston. He was just 22 years old.

Five years later, with his appeal to return to boxing ongoing, he set himself a different challenge… conquering the world of musical theatre.


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Ali starred in a musical called “Buck White”, which opened at the George Abbott Theater in New York on 2 December 1969.

The musical was set at a meeting of a Black militant group and its composer was Oscar Brown Jr, who would write more than a dozen musical plays during his career.

American boxer and sometime actor Muhammad Ali shakes hands with American television empresario Ed Sullivan (1902 - 1974) on an episode of Sullivan's 'Toast of the Town,' New York, January 18, 1970. Ali has just performed an excerpt from 'Buck White' a Broadway musical in which he starred.(Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
Muhammad Ali shakes hands with US TV show host Ed Sullivan in New York on 18 January 1970 after performing an excerpt from 'Buck White'. (Getty Images)

The musical was based on the play “Big Time Buck White”, which enjoyed successful runs in Philadelphia and Off-Broadway. Ali had seen the play and met the cast backstage, where he joined them for some singing.

“I was amazed at his ability to carry a tune,” the musical’s producer, Zev Buffman, told the New York Times in 2019.

Huffman, who died in April 2020 and produced Broadway plays starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Dustin Hoffman, had the idea of turning the play into a musical and persuading Ali to star.

“His voice was as attention-grabbing as his charm as a fighter,” he said.

Ali wore a wig and a fake beard for the title role - the character of Buck White inspired his followers with rousing speeches and songs.

World heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad  Ali at the cafe Royal, after the London Press showing of his biographical film
Muhammad Ali was celebrated for his activism rather than his acting. (Getty)

After the show’s final preview, expectations were high, with Buffman describing Ali’s performance as “brilliant”.

He said: “We went to the dressing rooms, we hugged, we celebrated. We thought we had a hit.”

In a review, New York Times critic Clive Barnes said Ali “sings with a pleasant, slightly impersonal voice, acts without embarrassment and moves with innate dignity”.

But just four days later, Buck White had closed down.

Read more: Muhammad Ali didn’t cash in on his name until age 64

Ali would perform one of its songs, “We Came in Chains”, with the cast on the Ed Sullivan show, a performance still available on YouTube, but by then it was gone from Broadway.

There was talk that the show was too ahead of its time, and that predominantly white audiences weren’t yet ready for its subject matter, but Buffman conceded that Ali had not matched his final preview performance on the musical’s opening night.

“Ali went onstage and he was somebody else; he went through the motions,” he told the New York Times.

Ali returned to the boxing ring towards the end of 1970 and would go on to win back his world title - he was the first fighter to win the championship on three separate occasions.