"There are people who would perhaps call me a dilettante, because it looks as though I'm having too much fun. I have never been convinced there's anything inherently wrong in having fun." - George Plimpton aka Mr. Radical Chic
Now here’s a guy I would like to have sat down and had dinner and drinks with…
Born on March 18, 1927 in New York City George Plimpton was certainly the beneficiary of what one would call a “good education”. He attended the elite Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and from there made his way to Harvard University where he majored in English. He also became one of the editors of the Harvard Lampoon. After a brief stint in the Army as a tank driver, it was back to the world of academia and he attended King’s College at Cambridge.
In 1953 Plimpton got together with some friends and decided to publish a new type of literary magazine. After some early disagreements regarding format, The Paris Review was eventually born. Plimpton was installed as editor in chief and held that position until his death.
Some people might be tempted to say “Big deal, who cares about yet another snobby itinerary magazine.” Some people would be wrong. Plimpton guided The Paris Review in a bold new direction and featured many and up and coming writer in its monthly offering. Among the more famous were Philip Roth and Jack Kerouac. The magazine also featured interviews with some of the more famous authors of the day such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Updike and Norman Mailer , to name a few.
Normally that would be a good enough career for anybody but Plimtpon was still unsettled and decided on a new career. He practically invented the term “participatory" journalist” and documented his exploits in magazines articles for all to enjoy. Among some his more famous escapades were:
Trying to go three rounds with heavyweight contender Archie Moore, trying to slip fastballs by Willie Mays, taking on the art of trapeze when he joined the circus, sailing with John F. Kennedy, being a mediator of sorts between Richard M. Nixon and Casey Stengel as they tried to have a conversation, bouncing tennis balls back and forth with George Bush and riding with Bill Clinton on Air Force One.
Perhaps his most famous exploit involved trying out for the quarterback position for the Detroit Lions back in 1963. His failed but humorous efforts were documented in a best selling book called Paper Lion which was later made into a movie starring a young Alan Alda.
While most of his forays into “participatory journalism" revolved around sports, Plimpton also took to acting. Well, sort of. Most of his roles were limited to cameo appearances or voiceovers. The following is a list of films that he appeared in.
Bullet in the Brain (2001)
Just Visiting (2001)
Woman Found Dead in Elevator (2000)
"Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton
& Susan B. Anthony
The Last Days of Disco
Good Will Hunting
Just Cause (1995)
Little Man Tate
The Bonfire of the Vanities
Easy Wheels (1989)
Religion, Inc. (1989)
If Ever I See You Again (1978)
The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
Although not “formally” recognized as a great author, Plimpton was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2002. Not to be outdone, the French reward him with the title Chevalier in the Legion of Honor soon afterwards. In keeping with his tongue in cheek style (read Sidd Finch!), perhaps New York City bestowed the most prestigious award upon him when they named him the “Commissioner of Fireworks” even though no such position actually existed.
George Plimpton died on September 27, 2003 and the world is a little emptier place without him.
Little known factoid…
George Plimpton also served as a volunteer in Robert Kennedy’s bid for the presidency in 1968. He was on the stage at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Kennedy was assassinated and was among those who tackled Sirhan Sirhan when the fatal shots were fired.