But if he is remembered at all a decade after his passing, it is as the ultimate amateur, a man forever stepping into the shoes of top professionals to see what it feels like to pitch at Yankee Stadium, play quarterback for the Detroit Lions, act with John Wayne or do stand-up comedy in a smokey nightclub.
This “participatory journalism,” as he called it, produced several classic magazine pieces and, of course, his memorable best-selling book “Paper Lion.”
That he was the long time editor of The Paris Review, which he co-founded with Peter Matthiessen, and consequently a major literary influence for years, has become a footnote to his celebrated life.
Using a bountiful archive of audio, visual and written materials, filmmakers Tom Bean and Luke Poling try to piece together the motivating force behind the curious exploits of this well-born and bred New Englander in “Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself”
The film comes up a little short, which is perhaps understandable, but like seemingly anything involving George Plimpton the experience is so much fun.
The film doesn’t lack for key pieces of evidence. There is, for instance, his relationship with Ernest Hemingway. He sees the great American writer as a mentor — who knows how Papa Hemingway viewed this diligent amateur? — so perhaps he took to heart the Hemingway approach to writing.
For Hemingway went to war as a correspondent, drove an ambulance, went big game hunting and fishing, stepped into bull rings and lived his stories as fully as possible before taking up pen.
Then there were the high expectations for such a bright young Harvard man. Yes, he gave birth to a major literary publication but editing other people’s writing and conducting interviews may only be seen as a sideline job to such an ambitious personality.
Yet George apparently had no great stories to tell. So he created situations to write about, much as Jack Kerouac hit the road to gain experiences to transform into books.
George sought the limelight. No doubt about it. Whether it be attempts at the trapeze, swimming or playing the triangle with the New York Philharmonic, he somehow needed that attention.
He also befriended and hosted parties for the American literati. Amazing photos, taken during a soiree in his New York apartment, find such guests as Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal, Gay Talese, William Styron and Ralph Ellison jammed into a crowded living room, highballs in hand.
Tellingly, the one moment of his life that found him at the epicenter of a history he did not create, he never wrote about. He was on the presidential campaign trail with his good friend, Bobby Kennedy, when the senator was gunned down in L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel kitchen.
George even reached out to grab the gunman. He never spoke nor wrote about that event other than in a police deposition.
So the movie presents an utterly fascinating life but offers only snatches of information to explain it. Mostly the narration belongs to Plimpton himself as his own archive yielded scores of audio and video tapes as well as 8mm and 16mm film of good old George recalling his past.
Friends and family fill in some of the blanks. But when you come to TV commercials starring Plimpton, you do wonder: Why did he need to bask in the limelight so often?
Perhaps because the filmmakers received such generous cooperation from Plimpton’s widow, his second wife Sarah, as well as from so many friends, the dig into Plimpton’s life is shallow.
Indeed the doc gives short shift to his Paris Review life — to how he may have shaped the American literary scene and helped great writers emerge into their own limelight.
Since he played goalie for the Boston Bruins and swung on a flying trapeze, the movie doesn’t seem to take him too seriously. But once again he is the life of the party. No doubt about it.
Opens: June 7, 2013 (Laemmle/Zeller Films)
Production companies: Joyce Entertainment and The Office of SPECTRE
Directors/screenwriters: Tom Bean, Luke Poling
Producers: Tom Bean, Luke Poling, Terry McDonnel, Adam Roffman
Executive producers: Kris Meyer, Dennis Joyce, Antonio Weiss, Phyllis Alexander, Bill Deacon, Toby Barlow
Music: Mark De Gli Antoni
Editor: Maya Hawke, Casey Brooks
No rating, 87 minutes