In a world where people expect stunts, it would be easy to dismiss George Plimpton as a trailblazer stuntman. It would also be wrong.
“Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself,” airing on PBS’ “American Masters” Friday, May 16 (check local listings), paints a complete portrait of the writer, who died in 2003 at the age of 76.
In some ways, the tall patrician was a trailblazer with his self-described participatory journalism. The 90-minute biography chronicles Plimpton’s life starting with his well-to-do childhood in Manhattan.
He was sent to Exeter Academy, as all the men in his family were. Exeter bounced him three months before graduation.
While there, he failed at pretty much every sport and activity. In the spring of 1952, though, a friend started The Paris Review and asked Plimpton to become the editor.
A burgeoning writer, he didn’t publish himself but writers he admired. He invented the “Paris Review conversation,” asking probing questions of artists about the creative process.
Plimpton wrote for Sports Illustrated, and while there, “I wondered if it were not possible to actually play a game,” he says.
Editors arranged for him to pitch in a postseason exhibition game between teams managed by Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. He even got Mays to pop up.
“And I thought, ‘Well, now, this is what I am going to do in life. Why should I be fussing with a pen?’ Then, of course, the scales redressed themselves properly,” he says.
That led to Plimpton famously playing many sports and writing about the experience. He shot hoops with the Boston Celtics and wound up “weeping and bleeding” in the boxing ring with Archie Moore.
All the while, he edited The Paris Review from his New York home, where he threw wild cocktail parties.
He was longtime friends with the Kennedy family and was next to Robert F. Kennedy when he was assassinated. Among the men who held down Sirhan Sirhan, Plimpton never spoke publicly or wrote about the experience.