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That time Muhammad Ali got blindsided by the Church of Scientology

Muhammad_Ali

 
Like the rest of the world, we’re remembering Muhammad Ali today with the passing of one of the 20th century’s most intriguing personalities. Like you, we’re seeing a lot of great pieces about Ali’s career as an athlete and his memorable quotes as a human being, one of the best known human beings of all time.

Ali, of course, was well known for his 1964 conversion to Islam. But we couldn’t help wonder if Scientology ever made a run at the famous boxer. And that’s when we found that Janet Reitman, in her 2011 book, Inside Scientology, mentioned Ali in connection to a subtle church operation that took place in 1981.

Before there was “We Are the World” (1985) and “Do They Know It’s Christmas” (1984), there was “Get High on Yourself,” a star-studded, if awful song about saying no to drugs that made use of some of the biggest celebrities of the time to bring publicity to a cause.

One of those celebrities was Muhammad Ali, who was one of several athletes who appeared in the music video, along with Bruce Jenner, Magic Johnson, and Julius “Dr. J” Erving. Other celebrities included TV stars Henry Winkler, Carol Burnett, and HervĂ© Villechaize, and a few film legends, including Paul Newman and Bob Hope.

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Putting it all together was legendary producer Robert Evans, who also appears in this extended clip from a television special that was made from the taping of the song. And what Reitman explained, with the help of Nancy Many, was that the entire thing was a subtle attempt to get access to these stars by the Church of Scientology, with the help of celebrity Scientologist and TV hack Cathy Lee Crosby.

First, take a nice trip back to the soft-focus days of 1981 by watching this extended clip, and then we’ll let Reitman tell the tale of what was going on…

 

By the late 1970s, the Narconon program was being implemented in prisons across the United States, and a number of drug treatment centers had opened in the United States and abroad to administer it. Narconon was headquartered in Los Angeles, where it won the support of celebrity Scientologists, notably the former professional tennis player Cathy Lee Crosby, best known as the blonde co-host of a popular TV stunt show, That’s Incredible!

In the fall of 1980, Crosby, an adamant anti-drug crusader, appeared before the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control to decry Americans’ increasing reliance on chemical substances of all sorts. Without mentioning their Scientology connections, she extolled the virtues of Narconon and the Purification Rundown. “I did the program myself,” she boasted, admitting that she’d once been a “dabbler” in drugs but had quit, with the help of the Purification Rundown. “It was so fantastic, I wanted to get it out into the world.”

A few weeks after she delivered this testimony, Crosby’s friend Robert Evans, the former head of Paramount Pictures, pleaded guilty in a New York federal court for cocaine possession. In lieu of prison, Judge Vincent Broderick sentenced Evans, the producer of films like Chinatown and The Godfather, to one year’s probation and added a provision whereby his criminal record would be expunged if Evans used his “unique talents” to create a sixty-second TV spot, to be aired within a year, that would discourage young people from using drugs.

Crosby suggested a campaign called “Get High on Yourself,” which would enlist a diverse group of celebrities to appear in various ads as so-called drug-free heroes. This concept was a public relations cornerstone of Narconon, which Crosby and her manager, a former Celebrity Centre employee named Kathy Wasserman, had made their pet project.

Evans latched onto Crosby’s idea and set about planning the spots, which would feature prominent people talking “about the pleasure, and glamour, of life on a natural high,” as Time magazine later described the ads. Among the dozens of celebrities recruited to sing the “Get High on Yourself” jingle — in pop, rock, country, and gospel versions — were Paul Newman, Bob Hope, Cheryl Tiegs, Bruce Jenner, Carol Burnett, Magic Johnson, Ted Nugent, Burt Reynolds, Muhammad Ali, and John Travolta. Only a few, like Crosby and Travolta, were Scientologists. But Scientologists were integral to the spots, which were taped in one six-hour session, serving as go-fers and assistants to the stars who took part in the campaign…

This was the subtle approach that Scientologists used at the taping session for “Get High on Yourself,” where “every single celebrity was assigned a Scientologist,” said Many, who was in attendance. “The didn’t know we were Scientologists, and I don’t think Bob Evans ever knew we were Scientologists. They were told we were volunteers who came into help out and make sure the celebrities had what they needed.” No one bothered to ask where the volunteers came from. “This was like a meet-and-greet for mega A-listers. They were so busy talking to one another, they didn’t even notice.”

…Robert Evans did no more promotion but later described “Get High on Yourself” as one of the singular accomplishments of his career. “To this day,” said Nancy Many, “I don’t think anyone knows that Scientology had anything to do with that campaign.”

Actually, that involvement did come up publicly at the time. People magazine asked about it, and Evans angrily denied the connection.

“It’s a flagrant lie. There’s not even a tinge of Scientology in this,” Evans told the magazine.

We wonder if it would be tougher for Scientology to pull off an operation like this today. And we also wonder if Cathy Lee Crosby is still involved in the church — we’ll ask our great commenting community to track that down for us.

But mostly, we’re glad that Scientology didn’t get its hooks into the Greatest of All Time, the champion who was an actual humanitarian, not the kind that Scientology talks about. Muhammad Ali was a force of nature, and we’re glad we were alive when he could still float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

 
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3D-UnbreakablePosted by Tony Ortega on June 4, 2016 at 07:00

E-mail tips and story ideas to tonyo94 AT gmail DOT com or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Our book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information about the book, and our 2015 book tour, can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.

Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of L.A. attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts

Other links: Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | Scientology boasts about assistance from Google | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ

Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield

 

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