The name George Plimpton is synonymous with a kind of all-in participatory journalism. Plimpton played quarterback for the Detroit Lions and triangle for the New York Philharmonic, and was badly beaten in the ring by boxer Archie Moore. Bob talks to Luke Poling, one of the creators of the new documentary Plimpton!, about who George Plimpton was and how he got that way.
BOB GARFIELD: The name George Plimpton is synonymous with a kind of all-in participatory journalism. Plimpton, who died in 2003, was the lifelong editor of The Paris Review, a landmark quarterly that introduced the world to some of the most iconic writers of the twentieth century. Indeed, Plimpton’s famous exploits in the first person, playing quarterback for the Detroit Lions and playing triangle for the New York Philharmonic were undertaken to subsidize his perennially struggling literary magazine. Here he is reminiscing about the time he subsidized by stepping into the ring with boxer Archie Moore.
GEORGE PLIMPTON: Well, as you can see, I am not properly constituted to fight. I have a very thin delicate nose which bleeds. And not only that, but I suffer from something called sympathetic response –
- which means that if you’re hit, you weep! Well, the uh – the fight started and in the first round Mr. Moore made these really very aggressive moves and stuck out a couple of extremely stiff jabs. And there was an enormous amount of sympathetic response.
And I think it sort of startled Archie Moore; he’d never been in the ring with somebody both bleeding and weeping at the same time.
[LAUGHTER] [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: But with the success of his 1966 bestseller, Paper Lion, Plimpton's quixotic everyman persona soon eclipsed the bookish literary one. Yes, he introduced Terry Southern and interviewed Ernest Hemingway but come on. He pitched against the 1958 National League All-Star team! He was a patrician man of letters, sometimes with those letters sewn right to his uniform. Here he is recounting his moment on the mound.
GEORGE PLIMPTON: And, finally, a guy called Frank Thomas, who played with the Pittsburgh Pirates, got up. And he hit the ball into the third tier -
[SOUND OF BAT/ROAR]
- of the Yankee Stadium, one of the longest balls I think I’ve ever seen hit. It was hit so far that my own reaction was that I had somehow helped with quite a considerable engineering feat, you know. Look what he and I had done together –
- which is not the way you’re supposed to feel out there on the pitcher’s mound.
BOB GARFIELD: Both clips you just heard were taken from a new documentary titled Plimpton! Luke Poling is one of the filmmakers. He says that the parallel publishing careers were distinct but also inseparable.
LUKE POLING: The participatory journalism originally started as a way for him to keep The Paris Review afloat. He ran it for 50 years out of his apartment in New York City and really, it was always sort of a, a hand-to-mouth existence, at times down to literally pennies in their bank account.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I happened to be Plimpton’s host at a speaking engagement at one point, and wrote in the intro that he was a professional dilettante. He took great umbrage at that description, because he didn't consider himself unserious. How would you characterize his approach to these kind of Walter Mitty fantasies that he, he brought to the page?
LUKE POLING: Well, “dilettante” I think might be the wrong word, because, you know, at the end of all of these attempts, if George had just said, I want to go pitch in Yankee Stadium tried it and kind of a made a, a fool of himself doing it, and that was it, perhaps the, the dilettante name could be applied.
But he actually then took that and went a step further and wrote about it and, and really spent some time thinking about it. You know, he – he wanted to get to know people. He wanted to get to know them on a very close level, in a way that you couldn’t just get by sticking your toe in. You had to jump in wholeheartedly.
When George played with the Bruins in 1977, it was before a pre-season game against the Flyers in the era of the Big Bad Bruins and the Broad Street Bullies. After George's five minute stint in goal, the Bruins and Flyers played a full 60-minute pre-season game, and in it erupted what Mike Milbury, who was on the team and is in the film and Gerry Cheevers who was the goalie at the time and Plimpton’s kind of goalie mentor, described to us as the ugliest fight they had ever seen in their NHL careers. And Plimpton was up in the Sports Illustrated luxury box during all of this. And Mike Milbury told us that after the game all of the Bruins came back to the locker room and George was sitting there just sort of beside himself, almost with tears in his eyes and a quiver in his voice saying, I can't believe I missed the greatest journalistic scoop of my career, this idea of being able to write about what it's like to be in the middle of one of those fights. And he considered himself part of the team, and he wanted to be in there and, and support his brethren.
BOB GARFIELD: If you think about his pedigree and then imagine him pursuing the pursuits he pursued, you know, I'm trying to put my head around the idea of, let's say, William F. Buckley –
- in goal for the Bruins, and I, I can't quite get there. [LAUGHS] But that’s kind of what was goin’ on, right?
LUKE POLING: Yes, in some ways. I mean, he didn't try to hide who he was. He came in in the Brooks Brothers jacket, with that somewhat ridiculous accent, and he was sitting in the locker room with Alex Karras and the rest of the Detroit Lions. And by the end of the first day, they had all kind of embraced him and realized that he wasn’t trying to put on airs, he wasn’t trying to be somebody he wasn't. He was just George, and they loved that about him and they loved him and found him interesting, and the feeling was mutual.
So he, you know, was able to get a lot of people to open up and talk to him and say things that they might not say to another interviewer. On the TV specials, there’s one where he goes on a photograph trip in Africa to photograph the white elephant for Life Magazine. And, at one point he’s interviewing a poacher who is talking about - after having killed an – an elephant, he admits that he has this moment of thinking, well, what have I done. And I don't know if every journalist would be able to get that out of somebody, to admit that, in that moment of really doing what their profession is, having that moment of doubt and wondering if it was all worth it?
But that was George. He was able to get people to, to talk to him and say things that they might not open up and say to anybody else.
BOB GARFIELD: At some point in the arc of his career, Plimpton kind of became famous for being famous.
LUKE POLING: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: And it reached absurd levels in the - I guess eighties, when he was – Well, just listen to this:
GEORGE PLIMPTON: Hello, I’m George Plimpton. In my career as a do-it-yourself sportswriter, I’ve sort of knocked myself out getting first-hand information. I’ve had to do it myself and take my knocks to get professional results. Now, right now, for an example, I’m working on my latest adventure. It’s all about a great new product from Alliance Manufacturing Company. It’s a knock-down, screw-drive automatic genie garage door opener system.
BOB GARFIELD: Garage door opener?
LUKE POLING: Yes, that was – it’s sort of the enigma of George and really doing everything he could to keep his beloved Paris Review afloat and open. And the eighties – you know, there were garage door openers, there were banks, there was cars. And a whole generation knows him as Mr. Intellivision, from the commercials for the video games. And then, you know, another group of people know him from Mouseterpiece Theater, as the host introducing classic Disney cartoons.
On the flipside of that, the more kind of artistic thing, is he also appeared as an extra in a ton of films. He was a Bedouin in Lawrence of Arabia, running across the desert –
- in his robes – and loafers.
BOB GARFIELD: Weejuns, no doubt.
LUKE POLING: Yes, exactly. [LAUGHS] And George had the story of going to see the film when it opened in 70 millimeter at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York and being disappointed that he was unable to spot himself.
He was interested in doing everything. During lunch time he would hang out and talk with the boom mic operator and wanted to find out what that was like, to, to hold the microphone over actors all day. And he was interested in talking to the lighting people. He was just interested in everything. And, again, that kind of goes back to this concept of the Curious George who wanted to, to meet everyone and try everything. And I think the idea of being a pitch man, you know, was part of that.
BOB GARFIELD: And yet, in those interviews he did in The Paris Review, there were always two parts. There was, let's say, Ernest Hemingway or Jack Kerouac, and then posing the questions was the interviewer, not George Plimpton, not the editor, just Interviewer. He completely pulled himself out of view.
LUKE POLING: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: How do you reconcile the demure interviewer with the exhibitionist magazine writer?
LUKE POLING: It’s an interesting question. I think in that instance, it was his love of literature and a love of these writers that he wanted to let them really be the star. The idea was to have them be able to talk openly and, and freely about their work and about their methods in a way that would inspire and encourage other writers. So it was really not a place for his voice to come in. He knew kind of when was the right time to step back and, and let someone else have the spotlight.
BOB GARFIELD: So, in the end, which guy was he, a literary lion or a Detroit Lion?
LUKE POLING: I would say literary lion because that would have also encompassed his work as a Detroit Lion, and a Boston Bruin and a Boston Celtic, you know, a member of the PGA Tour. All of his stunts, for lack of a better word, were done in the interest of writing about it and documenting it for his readers. And you combine that with his work with The Paris Review, I think you can only call him a literary lion, in that regard.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Luke, thank you very much.
LUKE POLING: Right, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Luke Poling and his collaborator Tom Bean are the creators of Plimpton!, a film that is just absolutely terrific. And, if you'd like to see it, it’s playing this week in New York and Los Angeles. For its wider release, check out plimptonmovie.com.