This year marks both the 10th anniversary of George Plimpton's death and the 50th anniversary of the professional quarterbacking foray that inspired his most famous work, Paper Lion. So the new documentary Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself easily could have gone the route of fawning tribute. But that would have done a disservice to the writer who faced down rampaging pass rushers and whistling left hooks in the name of great storytelling. Coproduced by former SI managing editor and Plimpton pal Terry McDonell, the film (which opens in New York City on May 31) explores the legacy of the man who was a sportswriter, a journalism pioneer, an entertainer, a socialite and a fixture among the Manhattan literati, while remaining an enigma even to his closest friends. It features commentary from contemporaries such as Gay Talese and James Salter and Plimpton discoveries such as Jay McInerney, but draws heavily on Plimpton's own narration, as pieced together from public talks and readings, to reveal its subject.
Raised on New York City's Upper East Side, Plimpton graduated from Harvard and studied at Cambridge. In 1953 he cofounded The Paris Review, which featured his seminal "Art of Fiction" interviews, one-on-ones with the likes of Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway. His own writing career, though, was forged in the pages of SI, in stories marked by his enterprising approach to reporting. Setting the standard for participatory journalism, he immersed himself in the professional athletes' world, conveying what it was like to train and compete alongside them. He lined up at quarterback for the Detroit Lions, faced Pancho Gonzales across a tennis net and pitched to Willie Mays. He induced Mays to pop out.
As Plimpton! makes clear, its subject was far from the typical sportswriter. As he once wrote, "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." Even as images flash on screen of a pale and strikingly thin Plimpton—who described his build as "rather like a bird of the stilt-like, wader variety"—getting battered by light heavyweight champ Archie Moore, one can't help but feel a certain envy toward the guy with the best bucket list in history. And when we see him playing touch football with the Kennedys or hosting yet another tony cocktail party, speaking with that inimitable patrician inflection, it's hard not to assume he had opportunities not afforded most other writers.
Still, no one could say Plimpton ever sought the path of least resistance. Consider one of his last—and most demanding—exercises in participatory journalism: standing in front of a hockey goal in Philadelphia's Spectrum arena, suited up for the rival Bruins, at age 50, for an exhibition game. Plimpton, gangly even in his goalie pads, tends the net with a reporter's notebook tucked in his uniform. His moment of reckoning comes on a Flyers penalty shot from Reggie Leach. Plimpton makes the save, but when a teammate slaps him on the back of the helmet in celebration, the game-winning goalie loses his balance and topples to the ice.
Dilettante? In the arena, maybe. But one with unmatched style and heart.