05/16/2013 11:22 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Plimpton! A Life Really Well-Lived

I've read a whole lot by George Plimpton. Oddly enough (or not oddly), nothing in his high-end, literary Paris Review magazine, celebrating its 60th anniversary. Just his books, in which, despite his lack of skills, he famously participated in professional sports -- playing the most important, and therefore most risky position, where the most could go wrong, and always did with him -- and then wrote utterly wonderful, intelligent, insightful, touching and hilarious works about what it was like to be a professional athlete, truly humanizing them. "Participatory journalism" was a phrase pretty much coined for Plimpton.

George Plimpton lived a life like James Thurber's dreamer, Walter Mitty, except he didn't dream about doing any exciting job in the world. He did the job. And then wrote about it.

There's a point to all this, but first it helps to know a bit about Plimpton, a very erudite, high-class socialite from the Manhattan register, with a thick upper-crust accent, a man who fraternized even with the Kennedys.

His first book was Out of My League, about when he pitched to the all-star lineups of Major League baseball players. They didn't play a real game, but was more a pitching demonstration. And what it demonstrated most was that not just anyone can pitch in the major leagues. The book It was fairly short, but a treat and so different from most other sports books. And gave a hint of what was to come.

What next was to come was Paper Lion, considered one of the great sports books ever, when he trained with the Detroit Lions to be their quarterback, leading to him being put in for one set of downs in an actual exhibition game in front of a stadium-full of fans. The book was subsequently made into a feature film with Alan Alda (a pretty good doppleganger) playing Plimpton. The good thing about the movie is that Alex Karras was in it, an absence in the book since he'd been suspended from the NFL that year for gambling, but his larger-than-life presence is felt throughout the work. (I suspect his scene-stealing appearance in the movie helped bring him to the attention to Mel Brooks who later hired him to play 'Mongo' in Blazing Saddles six years later.) The one bad thing about the movie is that they made the downs he plays in the exhibition game "dramatically" silly. A shame, because the real thing was bizarrely bad enough. One interesting thing about Paper Lion is that Plimpton wasn't well-known at this point, so for much of the book, the other players think he's a really, truly a bad recruit from Harvard. (When he'd screw up a play, he'd always say, "Well, that's how we did it at Harvard.") Eventually, his cover is blown by one of the players who'd read Out of My League and thought he seemed familiar.

Other of his joyful, utterly-fascinating books included:

The Bogey Man, when he briefly played on the PGA golf tour. This was the one sport when Plimpton actually had a chance to not be pathetically awful. And though he wasn't any good and had his share of mis-adventures, he wasn't pathetically awful, at least compared to the other sports. Just, not good. (I have to say, too, that whoever titled Plimpton's books always did a great job.)

In Open Net, he played goalie for the Boston Bruins, facing rocket-like pucks slammed at him, Like Out of My League, it's pretty short, but very enjoyable.

And Mad Ducks and Bears was a sort of sequel to Paper Lion. It wasn't participatory, more about what happens after, though it did include updates on some of his other participations.

Among those others were undertakings that he didn't write as books, but which were filmed for TV documentaries. Nor were they all about sports. I haven't been able to find the TV broadcasts (a shame, but I keep looking), but if you can track them down, I recall that they did three, and they were all - like all that Plimpton did -- really wonderful.

Plimpton: The Man on the Flying Trapeze had him training with the circus to be a trapeze artist, a job which, given his tall, angular body, he was woefully unsuited.

Another had him taking on acting. I don't recall the name of the special, but he was given a bit part in a John Wayne movie, Rio Lobo. His scene is still in the movie, as one of a group of bad guys who break in on Wayne and threaten him. Throughout the documentary, the camera catches him rehearsing his one line whenever he has a spare, private moment. "I got your warrant right here, mister," after which he's to hold up his rifle. And then, at the last moment, right before filming, the director changes his line. The look of panic on his face is a hoot. But if you see the movie, the line is now -- "This here's your warrant, mister."

But perhaps my favorite (and again I can't recall the title, though they all began with "Plimpton!" ) is when he re-creates his tryout as quarterback with the Lions, something he didn't get to do on film. So, this time, he goes through it all again, though with the Baltimore Colts. (Now, the Indianapolis Colts.) My recollection is that even though he's still lousy, he actually completed a short pass, or at least didn't fully embarrass himself.. But then, he'd had one training camp before to practice in.

Plimpton had some other "participatory journalism" exploits, smaller ones though, and not all sports (for one, he played tympani in the New York Philharmonic), most which he wrote about for Sports Illustrated. The most famous was boxing against heavyweight champion Archie Moore.

And now the point to all of this.

A documentary has been made about George Plimpton, and it's being released very shortly. I love the full title. Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself. Geez, great titles still follow him everywhere.

Tracking down some information on the film, it uses Plimpton's own voice for the narration. It's directed by Tom Bean and Luke Poling who spent four years conducting interviews and uncovering archival material that includes personal audio and videotape. I am going to make a big assumption that the film will include quite a bit of footage from those aforementioned TV specials. First of all, how could it not? Second, because the documentary is titled with the same "Plimpton!" as the TV shows, it seems that the producers have a kinship with them. And third, the trailer has clips from some of them. Maybe this will inspire some to release the TV documentaries.

The documentary opens on May 22 in New York. and then June 7 in Los Angeles. (Very thoughtfully of the filmmakers, one of the L.A. theaters is three blocks from me. So, thanks...) The website also now notes an opening in Boston on June 21, so I'm sure there will be other cities -- most especially since the film was picked up by the Laemmle chain -- but eventually it'll show up on DVD and in Netflix, I'm sure.

My favorite line in the material on the film is this - "It's difficult to imagine this life was lived by just one man." That, indeed, is much the fun of George Plimpton.

Anyway, here's the trailer for the film. Me, I can't wait.

Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself from Luke Poling on Vimeo.


To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about other matters from politics, entertainment, technology, humor, sports, and a few things in between, visit Elisberg Industries.