08/18/2014 12:14 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Plimpton! The Professional Amateur


How many of us have ever wanted to play a professional baseball or football, box in the ring with a champ, or perform in a world-renowned symphony orchestra? Many, to be sure. But how many have had the guts or the chance to actually do it? And how many have done it while remaining an amateur? George Plimpton may be one of the rare few.

He pitched for a major league All-Star team, played for the Detroit Lions, the Boston Bruins, and Boston Celtics, boxed against Archie Moore, played percussion in the New York Philharmonic, and much more, all while explaining to us directly what these experiences are actually like. In his writing, he explored the phenomena of the amateur, while as a professional he ushered in the era of New Journalism with its participatory spirit. He also contributed to the world of letters through his work as the editor of The Paris Review from first issue in 1953 until his death in 2003.

All of this is investigated in a charming documentary about Plimpton's life, called simply Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, directed by Tom Bean and Luke Poling which aired on PBS this past spring and is now out on DVD. This engaging and detailed film is an investigation of Plimpton's life as a journalist, an arbiter of fiction and poetry as editor and of discussions around fiction and poetry as a world class interviewer of literary giants, as a public figure, and perhaps most interestingly as a private (or non-private) man.

It doesn't delve much into his work as a biographer of such figures as Truman Capote and Edie Sedgwick, nor his limited work as an actor, but this may be understandable. He did so much that any film would have a hard time doing all of it justice.

The documentary starts with footage of Plimpton in a circus about to take a swing and a leap on a flying trapeze over a somewhat edgy looking crowd. Through the voice of the announcer, we know this is a man out of his depth. This is something that the documentary takes a lot of effort to make clear. Despite his extremely riche family background, Plimpton came to represent a kind of Everyman through his dalliances in various professions, as the ultimate amateur out of his depth. We connect with his journalism because we realize that in the same circumstance we would likely be as overwhelmed and perform as badly, if not worse.

The filmmakers go into great detail about his time as a participatory sports journalist and his interest in experiencing major league sports from the point of view of the players. His 1966 book, Paper Lion, about his short time playing football with the Detroit Lions, highlights both the joy and difficulty he experienced as an amateur playing a sport at the professional level, as well as the shame of being unable to live up to professional standards.

It is interesting to note that the profession where he felt the most nervous and unprepared was in a very different kind of realm: that of classical music. In 1967, he played percussion in the New York Philharmonic, which he has noted was the most difficult thing he had ever done. Unlike sports, where errors are part of the gig, music demands perfection. But in the Philharmonic, Plimpton made many mistakes during rehearsal and even performances, and was admonished by an increasingly frustrated Leonard Bernstein, who was forced to keep him on as it was all for a major primetime television special.

Plimpton's other focus besides his participatory journalism was his time at the helm of The Paris Review, one of the world's most important literary journals. As the film notes, he was responsible for originating the section for which it may be best known: author interviews. One of the most famous, and the one often mentioned by Plimpton, was his interview with the older and irascible Ernest Hemingway, who showed little interest in talking about writing, yelled at Plimpton for asking him why he always used birds symbolically in his sex scenes, and after asking him about his experience with Archie Moore challenged him to a boxing match.

Plimpton's two passions, of participatory journalism and literary editing, did clash. His friends at the Review and in literary circles didn't think of his journalistic writing as anything very meaningful and wondered when he would start writing more serious work. They also admonished him for his desire to become a media personality. As he got older, he became more and more present on television, doing everything from primetime specials focusing on his adventures, to talk show interviews, to ads for garage door openers.

The film is careful to point out that his motivation for these commercial activities was to fund The Paris Review, which never made a profit while he was its editor. Although many in the writing community thought he was doing little more than prostituting himself, he carried on. One of the major themes of the film is Plimpton's courage and perseverance.

The Paris Review fostered a place for a whole new generation of editors and writers to thrive. And being the social animal he was (he was notably good friends with the Kennedys, who he often went to visit on Cape Cod), Plimpton partied with his staff and writers as hard as he worked, much to the annoyance of his first wife. His children were witnessing a life of wild parties that she thought was inappropriate for them, and worse, getting very little personal time with their father.

While he could be extremely genial in conversation and within social circles, Plimpton was not a man you could get close to. His ex-wife and children talk poignantly in the film about how he never really opened up to anyone, even his family. Perhaps this came from his cold Waspy upbringing. As is mentioned several times, Plimpton had a chip on his shoulder about his perception that he had disappointed his father in his lack of athletic interest and chosen profession, which manifested itself in an attempt to do all the things he never managed to master as an adolescent.

Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself is a fascinating investigation of a literary figure who never really got his due. Whether it was because of his concentration on subjects such as sports; his participatory adventures in journalism; or his status as a public figure; many in the literary establishment never really took him seriously, despite his enormous contribution to the world of letters as head of The Paris Review.

But, as someone who has run into George Plimpton in various places over the years, whether it be through his writing, his acting, or his television appearances, I am glad that this film has been made and that he has been put in a place of cultural importance where he belongs. It seems strange to think from watching the footage that he died more than a decade ago. His crisp patrician voice feels like it's still with us.