NEW YORK — For a guy who's a regular at Elaine's and has a standing reservation at Rao's and his own gallery in Vegas and a new book out selling for $400, and now a short doc on Oscar's short list, Neil Leifer still acts like he has something to prove.
Some of it's the plight of the news or sports photographer, even if you're the best. Leifer recalls how even Sports Illustrated sometimes sent him out with a snot-nosed reporter who'd introduce him by saying "This is my photographer."
He tells too how one Time magazine writer would identify himself, even to natives in Africa, as "Joe Dokes" -- we're changing the name -- "Harvard." After which our hero would introduce himself as "Neil Leifer -- Seward Park High School."
He embraces the persona of the guy from the streets who had to hustle his way to the top, the little guy -- 5-foot-6 at most -- who couldn't rely on innate genius to get his famous shots. He had luck too, of course, as when he was in the perfect spot at ringside in Lewiston, Maine, May 25, 1965, to capture Muhammad Ali looming over a fallen Sonny Liston, a picture you can buy from him now for a mere $10,000. But he had to plot to get other landmark pictures, as when he dug a camera into the ground below second base at Dodger Stadium to snap Willie Davis sliding in, curving tiers of the ballpark looming behind him.
"What separates a really good photographer from the ordinary is, when things happen --when you get lucky -- you don't miss," Leifer says. "I didn't miss."
If he has an ego, it's earned. But that record of not missing makes more frustrating what happened when he was primed to trade in his still camera for a moving one three decades ago, with dreams of being Francis Ford Coppola. Unfortunately, no "Godfather" has fallen his way since, leaving him to settle for self-financed shorts on a gossipy Korean nail salon or an arrogant baseball player who won't sign autographs for anyone but babes with big boobs.
"My film career has not been the same success," he sums it up one night in Elaine's.
It's not enough that he gets great tables there, or that he's become one of New York's classic characters at 65. There's something else Neil Leifer wants now that will make everything right:
There's one painting in his living room, a serigraph by LeRoy Neiman of the horse-racing themed 21 Club, with a personalized touch -- Neiman agreed to paint him into the scene.
Leifer naturally wanted "something dignified," him in the back of a Rolls out front, being chauffeured by a nitwit editor of his. Neiman envisioned something less exalted: "He wanted to put him as one of the jockeys," notes Leifer's fiancee, Randye Stein, "because he's short."
Only one of Leifer's own photos is in the room -- his shot from high up in the Astrodome looking down on Ali and an opponent, both with arms raised, except Ali is standing and Cleveland Williams is flat on the canvas. It's a stunning visual, but also can serve as a Rorschach test, like his shot of Ali hovering over Liston: Is the lingering appeal the powerful man triumphant, or the one crushed to the ground?
"I would have to say vulnerability," Leifer says. But later, out on the town, he tries again.
"It's both," he says then, triumph and defeat together.
Most people have to wait for a near-death experience to see their lives flash before their eyes. He merely has to show up at Taschen bookstore in SoHo.
"You never sell books at these things," he says at the party for "Ballet in the Dirt," his oversized $400 volume of baseball photos. But no sooner does he sit at the signing table than the customers start coming up, credit cards in hand. "This is for my father, Al Silverman," says the first, and Leifer says back: "He published the Ameche."
Alan Ameche of the Baltimore Colts scored the winning touchdown against the New York Giants in the Dec. 28, 1958, NFL championship game that established football in the TV era. Leifer turned 16 that day and was on the field due to his typical . . . call it enterprise. The son of a postal worker and lingerie saleswoman, he grew up on the Lower East Side, where he took a photo class at a settlement house and learned how to sneak into Yankee Stadium, where the Giants played then. A group of wheelchair-bound veterans were allowed in free and if you waited at the right spot and volunteered to push 'em in . . . and who was gonna check if you brought in a $75 Yashica-Mat camera?
The book buyer's dad bought Leifer's photo for a magazine previewing the next NFL season for about $100. Today it costs $4,000, that shot of Ameche pushing over the goal line with the Yankee Stadium stands behind him topped by flapping flags and gleaming lights, an archetypal warrior-in-the-arena image.