Of the many artists who work in the sports world, there is one who stands above the rest. Leroy Neiman's paintings have been shown all over the world. Neiman is this week's "One On 1" interview with Budd Mishkin.
This man may have helped the jets win the 1969 Super Bowl.
Sure they had a great Quarterback Joe Namath, a strong running game and a solid defense, but perhaps they won because they had an artist in residence. That's right, an artist in residence on a football team. And of course it was Leroy Neiman.
"Weeb Eubank, the coach, never really took to the idea," says Neiman. "He thought, 'Leroy, you can sit on the end of the bench but don't— what the hell you doing it for.'"
The Jets haven't won the Super Bowl since. Maybe they should bring Neiman back. It was one of the more compelling parts of a career that has taken him around the world, painting and drawing the famous and famous events: the World Series, the Olympics, heavyweight title fights.
"The people who love my paintings, who respond to my paintings the most, they are spectators, they're not viewers. They look at it for thee experience and they re-experience for themselves," he says.
Neiman essentially created the idea of sports art, of capturing the athlete and the game for posterity. He works in a large studio and apartment on the West Side, the same studio where he's worked for more than forty years.
"When I do a painting, I get the temperature of the painting," he says. "My thing is if you start out, if it's a little somber, the painting stays somber. If I start the painting with a little kick, I keep going."
Even after all of these years, Neiman says some days he's on, and some days he's not.
"You might work on his face and work on it for like four hours or something like that, then you step back, 'that's not him. That's not right, I don't like it,"" says Neiman. "You try to correct it and maybe you do, maybe you don't. It depends. But the best thing to do is just take it out, and you take six hours out of your life, swipe it out. And then you have to start all over again."
Boxing is one of Neiman's favorite subjects. He was there throughout Muhammad Ali's career, even doing a book with Ali, who is himself fond of drawing.
"He puts everything in there, there's a whole story right there," Neiman says. "It's not just a careless drawing."
Perhaps, the best example of Neiman's status as a sports insider came before an Ali bout at the Garden in 1970, when the fighter kicked everyone out of his locker room except his trainer and Neiman. Neiman proceeded to draw Ali on the training table in the dark.
"You drew that just now?' He said, 'Leroy, you can draw better in the dark than you can in the light," Neiman recalls.
It is an art career unlike any other. His work has been displayed in some of the great museums of the world. But he's also painted, for example, the hockey player Bobby Hull for the cover of Time Magazine.
"That's what bugs a lot of people: 'He shouldn't be doing that. He shouldn't be having a good time,'" he says.
His paintings sell from $75,000 to $100,000 on average, up to a half a million on the high end. He is financially successful, if not always critically acclaimed.
"I just think they're wrong, that's all. They don't know," says Neiman. "Why am I going to worry about it? I can't educate them. I can't shape up for somebody else. I gotta do what I do, the way I live."
When we think of Leroy Neiman, we usually envision a brush, a big sporting event, and, the look.
"That's exactly the way I looked at that time, with my hair like that," he says. "It worked at the time."
And the look still includes what Neiman calls his virgin mustache.
"I had to take it off in the Army, but I had it before then and as soon as I got out of the Army, I put it back. That's it. It's a prop," he says.
He would one day travel the world, living the good life, but Leroy Neiman grew up poor during the depression in St. Paul. His father left when Neiman was young, so he was raised alone by his mother. You had to fight in the neighborhood, but Neiman found his niche, making posters for storefronts and proms and football games.
"It was great. It gave me a special role, not envied. I wasn't envied in any way," he says. "I was just an artist. Nobody wanted to be an artist and nobody particularly admired it."
Neiman served as a cook in the Army during WWII, landing six days after D-Day and getting caught in the Battle of the Bulge.
But he still had an opportunity to pursue his craft during the war, painting murals on the walls of the mess hall, drawing portraits of the officers and creating posters designed to combat a very specific problem.
"So I started doing these VD posters, that was a big problem. And I'd do these big VD posters, lettering and all, and they're bordering on pornography, these posters. They were fun and the guys all loved them. They would steal them and everything," he recalls.
He began to paint personalities in the Army. That continued after the war in Chicago when he'd frequent jazz clubs, and he would see the pain of racism experienced by some of the great black jazz musicians of the time.
"These guys were artists. They were really— that was their life, their whole life. And all the hardships the things they put up with, the embarrassments, the humiliations, these guys were angry all the time," he says. "They were just pissed off, that's all, all the time. And they were always happy at the same time, and they played their hearts out."
In the early fifties, Neiman was freelancing at a Chicago department store when he met a guy who would soon create a new magazine, Hugh Hefner. He hired Neiman for Playboy, helping his career and seemingly, giving him a calling card with women.
"Shel Silverstein and I used to go up to Michigan Avenue in Chicago with a tape measure and see a nice looking, very attractive girl coming up the street and we'd stop her, 'how would you like to be Playmate of the Month?' with no authorization from Hef at all," he says.
Playboy eventually sent Neiman on the road for a regular feature called "Man and His Leisure". On the surface, it seemed like a dream job.
"I would always travel first class, stay in grand hotels, eat in the best restaurants, limousines, all that stuff. I got so spoiled," he says. "I got so spoiled, I got tired of it."
Neiman and his wife Janet have lived in New York since the late fifties. He's now 79, but our image of him remains the artist cutting a stylish figure, a man still at his leisure. Perhaps that's a reason why Neiman has not received much praise from art critics.
"They don't understand, they've never been there. They've never lived that way," he says. "They think I'm looking for a good time, but I work the entire time. I work very hard and I work a lot. And I'm very productive, and I'm very self critical of my work."
And he's always drawing, in his studio, in the park, on the street, keeping almost everything he creates, stored away like a treasure trove of memories.
"It's fun and it's hard work, and it's tiring," says Neiman. "And I do that better than I can do anything else. It's taken care of me pretty good."
- Budd Mishkin