Q: How would you characterize Muhammad Ali’s relationship with his heavyweight rival Joe Frazier?
A: I think down deep, they liked and certainly admired each other’s skills and talent. But when I had them both on the show, he was showman enough to make it both funny and apparently genuine anger at times. Frazier didn’t have the great life that Ali did. He was a wonderful fighter. There probably was some jealousy there. And a couple of moments actually frightened some people who were watching when they were both sitting there with me. … Fortunately, it didn’t burst out. Another point it might have if some people were looking for trouble, was when Ali suddenly said, “Let’s be friends for a moment” to Frazier, “and get him.” And they both got up and lifted me up several feet off the ground and squeezed me between them.
Q: When you have a tense situation like that, how do you defuse that?
A: I think you just (laughs) hope you’re not going to make it worse. Try to be amusing if you can. Treat it lightly even if you don’t feel that. I’ve had times when I could have gotten a good fight going with certain guests but mostly didn’t but did a few times.
I didn’t make (one-time Georgia Governor) Lester Maddox very happy … . He said, “Well, you called all the people in my state bigots.” And I said, “No, I didn’t, Governor.” And he said, “You’re gonna have to apologize. You did and you’re gonna have to apologize.” And I said, “Well, alright.” Luckily, I was able to think of something to say. “OK, if I called anyone a bigot who isn’t a bigot, I apologize.” Well, Lester seized on that to haul ass, as they say in show business (laughs). It got a hand, which also annoyed him, I’m sure.
George Dickie has been a features writer for Gracenote/Tribune Media Services since 1989, when “Hee-Haw” was still on the air and George “Goober” Lindsay was his first interview. His early interviews ranged from Jim Henson and Dick Van Dyke to Phil Collins and the Dixie Chicks.