By Jackie Kallen
I am so sad to hear that my dear friend LeRoy Nieman has passed away at 91 years old. He was an iconic figure in the sports world as well as the art world. For decades he was a regular sight sitting ringside at all the major fights, sketchpad on his lap, cigar in his mouth.
The first time I met LeRoy was in 1981. I was working as the publicist for the Kronk Gym and LeRoy wanted to do a portrait of Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns. We flew to New York from Detroit so Thomas could sit for the master. As we sat in his studio, LeRoy and I chatted away as though we were old friends. Thus began a friendship that endured for 31 years.
I would run into LeRoy at all the big fights and parties. Sometimes when he came to LA on business, we would go to Spago’s for dinner. He loved it there and enjoy talking to people about boxing. All sports appealed to him, but boxing was his passion.
In June, 1988 we were all in Atlantic City for the Tyson/Spinks fight. I was with my ex-husband, Thomas was with his now-wife Renee, and we were also with Bill Laimbeer (Detroit Pistons) and his wife. LeRoy was there as well and we all went to the huge pre-fight party that Donald Trump threw the night before.
Everyone from Jesse Jackson to Oprah to Billy Crystal to Robe Lowe to Marcus Allen was there. LeRoy had a ball sketching one celebrity after another. I walked up to him as he was sketching Warren Beatty chatting with Jack Nicholson.
“Oh, I want that one!” I told LeRoy. “I love them both.”
A few weeks later I received a package from LeRoy. In it was a lithograph of the sketch. I was beyond thrilled. I framed it and it still hangs in my office 24 years later.
In 2004, when I was doing”The Contender” with Sly Stallone, LeRoy came to the set to watch a taping. He hung with me in the dressing room as I was getting hair and makeup done and he sketched me. To be drawn by the hand of such a legendary artist was both daunting and flattering. Naturally I framed it and cherish it.
Neiman sketched at the Olympics, the Playboy Mansion, Superbowls and on safari in Kenya. He loved his life. He used to say that he was the luckiest man alive to do what he loved every single day. With his slicked-back hair and his handlebar mustache, he was one of the most recognizable faces in the art world.
One of my personal favorites is the painting he did of Sly as “Rocky.” That and his many Muhammad Ali portraits are all worth a small fortune these days. Now that he has passed, LeRoy’s work will only appreciate in value. He would be pleased about that.
Rest in peace, my friend. Say “Hello” to Picasso and Rembrandt up there. I’m sure you’ll have plenty to talk about.
Jackie Kallen is a boxing manager who has been in the business for over three decades. Her life inspired the Meg Ryan film “Against the Ropes” and she was a part of the NBC series “The Contender.” www.JackieKallen.com, www.facebook.com/JackieKallen