Late Neiman captured unique beauty of sports
LeRoy Neiman was the Zelig of the sports world. For years, whenever there was a big event, Neiman was there, sketch pad in hand, capturing the scene in a style that was all his own.
Neiman, who passed away Wednesday at 91, was instantly recognizable with his bushy moustache and cigar. He could be found in the paddock area before a big horse race or ringside at the big fights. He was a fixture on the New York Jets’ sidelines during the Joe Namath era. If Neiman was there, you knew it was important.
His style was splashy and not to everyone’s taste. Purists dismissed him as a pop culture creation. Art critic John Russell once said: “Neiman makes art for people who don’t like art.” But he was enormously popular and one of his works, a 160-foot long sports mural, dominates the Sports Museum of America in New York City.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, it was almost impossible to walk into the home of a star athlete and not find a Neiman painting. His work was everywhere. Everyone from Muhammad Ali to Jack Nicklaus to Howard Cosell had a Neiman original. His paintings sold for as much as $350,000 each. At his peak, he earned an estimated $10 million a year.
Neiman was to the sports world what Norman Rockwell was to Fourth of July parades. He was to the locker room what Rockwell was to Main Street, USA. He tapped into the scene in a way that was unique. While some called his work “Holiday Inn expressionist” (Sports Illustrated), others called it powerful and affecting. It was certainly original.
“A Neiman is alive,” boxing promoter Don King told Sports Illustrated. “It has a pulse and a heart.”
Neiman’s career took off with the launch of Playboy Magazine when publisher Hugh Hefner hired him to do a regular feature called “Man and His Leisure.” At the time, Neiman was a fashion illustrator, but he was an avid sports fan and Playboy gave him access to the jock world.
Once Neiman’s work appeared in the magazine, his popularity grew. He sketched everything from the Boris Spassky-Bobby Fischer chess match to the Ali-Frazier trilogy. He was the official artist of five Olympiads and contributed original works for CBS at the Super Bowl.
“He was an amazing guy,” said Joe Pagliei, who played for the Eagles and the New York Titans of the AFL. “I met him when I was working at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City. He came to the hotel. I recognized him, we started talking and we were friends right away.
“In 1985, we started a golf tournament. I asked LeRoy if he would create something for the poster. He agreed and did this beautiful painting. I still have the original signed to me. He was a very classy individual. People were always coming up to him and he could not have been nicer.”
Pagliei recalled having dinner with Neiman one night in Atlantic City when the artist saw a man across the room whose profile fascinated him. Neiman took out a pencil and began sketching the man's portrait on a menu. When he was finished, he walked over and handed it to him.
“I can only imagine what the guy was thinking,” Pagliei said. “I mean, here is a LeRoy Neiman original and he’s just handing it to you, a total stranger. Who knows how much something like that is worth? He just said, ‘Here you go.’
“I watched him work many times and was amazed how fast he was. He’d open that big leather case, pull out his pad and start sketching, turning the pages, more and more until he was done.”
Neiman did an entire Namath gallery that included sketches of the Jets quarterback being taped before games and sitting alone at his locker. One portrait shows a pensive Namath stretched out on the floor after a game with ice packs wrapped around both knees. Moments like that, intimate and unguarded, were Neiman’s strength.
Neiman’s collection includes portraits of many celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Bo Derek, Sylvester Stallone (Neiman had a cameo in Rocky III) and Neil Diamond. Many of his paintings are housed at the LeRoy Neiman Gallery at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky. Others can be found at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
"It's been fun," Neiman said in a 2008 interview. "I've had a lucky life."