Few media figures have felt more conspicuously ahead of their time than George Plimpton, who brought a mix of journalism, hucksterism and showmanship together in one aristocratic package — like Anderson Cooper, Morgan Spurlock and Johnny Knoxville all rolled into one. PBS does the man justice with “Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself,” a 90-minute “American Masters” documentary devoted to the perpetual amateur who popularized the term “participatory journalism,” and seemed to cram several lives into one. Interesting on its own terms, the doc echoes more loudly, considering how perfectly suited to today Plimpton’s style feels.
After a few obligatory biographical tidbits (his father, for example, being a rather disapproving jerk, based on Plimpton’s narration), George essentially stumbled into his job at the Paris Review. Quickly, he embarked on a string of participatory stories designed to establish him as a surrogate for the reader — providing an idea of what it would be like to step into a boxing ring with light-heavyweight champ Archie Moore, pitch to Willie Mays in Yankee Stadium or, most famously, play quarterback for an NFL team, which spawned his breakaway bestseller “Paper Lion.”
As extensive interviews make clear, the gimmicky nature of Plimpton’s work hardly won him universal praise or acceptance within elite literary circles. Moreover, there are those who express dismay over how he embraced the role of commercial pitchman in his later years, trading off his celebrity status.
Nevertheless, Plimpton led what can only be called a “Zelig”-like existence, so filled with encounters involving famous figures as to sound almost fabricated. He hobnobbed with Ernest Hemingway; hung out with the Kennedys and, via the Paris Review, hosted a who’s who of great writers. He dated movie stars, and stood scant feet away from Robert F. Kennedy on the night of his assassination (there’s even audio of Plimpton’s deposition to the police, after he joined those wrestling the gun away from Sirhan Sirhan).
In interviews, Plimpton stressed that he saw himself as a writer first and foremost, but of course, that only scratched the surface of his role. He also observed, perhaps more accurately, that viewers and readers quietly relished seeing him fall on his face, offering an assurance that the brutal world of professional football, for instance, wasn’t for just anybody.
Ultimately, his flair for intertwining storytelling, entertainment and self-promotion anticipated much of what TV news has become, yet he managed to remain affably bemused by how ill-equipped he was for the diverse challenges he undertook.
Plimpton died at age 76, but not before leaving an indelible stamp on media. And while he enjoyed more agony of defeat than thrill of victory in his colorful endeavors, his overarching legacy makes him — and “Plimpton!” — a clear winner.