The PBS American Masters series is airing a biopic about the writer who made a career out of being a “professional amateur.”
As Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself shows, the so-called “participatory journalist” would step into the ring with champ Archie Moore in order to write about boxing or fly through the air with the greatest unease at a circus to get the insider take on being a trapeze artist or, with triangle in hand, perform with an orchestra under Leonard Bernstein’s baton. In a sense, Plimpton’s inside-looking-out technique was to New Journalism what “method acting” is to the stage and screen.
The writer’s most famous stint – or “stunt,” perhaps-was suiting up to toss the old pigskin as a quarterback for the NFL’s Detroit Lions. Paper Lion, Plimpton’s book about this raucous rookie undertaking, became his biggest bestseller, and was adapted into the 1968 football film of the same name, with Alan Alda amiably portraying Plimpton. (As I recall, there are no clips from the feature in the PBS documentary.)
Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself is similar to that movie, and perhaps like the author himself-entertaining, but not very deep. Plimpton (1927 – 2003) was the son of a WASPy, patrician family raised in Manhattan’s exclusive Silk Stocking district. He spoke, like his contemporary, William F. Buckley, with an élite accent and attended upper-class private schools (but was expelled from Phillips Exeter Academy!) and Harvard University, where he wrote for the famed Harvard Lampoon and belonged to the Hasty Pudding Club. All this made his slumming as a do-it-yourself athlete all the more compelling.
Some considered Plimpton to be a “dilettante” because of his forays into foreign lines of work. Although he made a name for himself writing these insider accounts about his outsider excursions into rarified realms for various books and magazines such as Sports Illustrated, they’re not what he’s most proud of. Unlike his literary contemporaries, Plimpton may never have written a great American novel, but his greatest accomplishment was as the longtime editor of The Paris Review, wherein he published his counterparts who did (or at least tried to).
When it began in the early 1950s Plimpton actually relocated to the City of Lights in order to edit this literary magazine. But for most of his tenure as editor, the journal was not located in Paris (nor, did it actually run reviews as such), but was situated in Plimpton’s apartment in his beloved Manhattan’s Upper East Side. In between frequent swanky parties he’d edit fiction by William Styron or Norman Mailer or interviews with Ernest Hemingway and other literary lions in his posh perch.
The Paris Review may have had great writing but ran at a loss for much of its run during Plimpton’s reign. I remember seeing the tall, white haired writer/editor at what I believe was the L.A. Times Festival of Books, hawking his wares (i.e., subscriptions to the eternally in the red Review), and he exuded a persona of what could best be described as jovial, genteel poverty.
Much to his credit, Plimpton poured money he earned from his amateur outings into various different dimensions into supporting the magazine. His fame as the upper crust journalist who’d take a stab at sports full of physical danger and derring-do also led to his being used as a pitchman for various gadgets and the like in TV commercials. Like Orson Welles, he used this money not to line his own pocket but to support his noble artistic calling at the helm of his adored Review.
Interestingly, Plimpton, who hobnobbed with the Kennedys, never wrote about the most dramatic event he ever eyewitnessed, one of the political crimes of the century*, wherein he even tussled with the person convicted of being the gunman.
Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself includes archival and original interviews about the title character with publishers, writers, friends, relatives, and filmmakers who knew him, including Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter, authors Gay Talese, Peter Matthiessen, and Jay McInerney, and documentarian Ric Burns. Like most of Plimpton’s work, this nonfiction look at the man of letters who would be quarterback is enjoyable and interesting.
Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself airs on PBS stations starting May 16. Check local listings
* At Harvard, Plimpton was a classmate and close personal friend of Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy had just won the 1968 California Democratic primary when he was assassinated following his victory at a hotel in Los Angeles. Plimpton, along with former decathlete Rafer Johnson and football great Rosey Grier, was credited with helping wrestle the shooter to the ground. — Editors