By DOUG BLACKBURN , Staff writer
First published: Thursday, May 6, 1999
Literary lion

George Plimpton will discuss participatory journalism at UAlbany today

George Plimpton seems a bit out of sorts, answering the door of the four-story townhouse at 11 a.m. Tuesday. He is barefoot, a pin-striped blue-and-white shirt hanging over bluejeans, his white hair toussled.

He shows his visitors to a sitting room dominated by a large, faded-felt pool table and windows overlooking tugboats and barges on the East River. Roosevelt Island seems to be a 5-iron shot away, and cars whiz by on the FDR Drive along the water.

The floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in his Upper East Side Manhattan apartment are full. One of Plimpton's better-known books, "Bogey Man,'' about his adventures on the pro golf tour, catches the eye. Framed posters and black-and-white photos blanket the walls: Plimpton with Muhammad Ali, Plimpton standing behind men dressed up as Batman and Superman, Plimpton with Norman Mailer.

He returns in moments, having put on socks and a cream-colored pullover, plops down in a large armchair and asks his visitors what they want to talk about. His voice, immediately recognizable from film roles and commercials, is more Brahmin than Big Apple, despite being born and raised in New York City. Perhaps it was four years at Harvard followed by two at King's College, Cambridge, that makes him sound like a member of William F. Buckley's family.

Family man

The spiral staircase to the second floor of his apartment is encased in mesh, a child safety device to protect his 4-year-old twin daughters, Laura and Olivia. Their twin red tricycles are tucked neatly in a corner. Plimpton had the girls at age 67, with his second wife, Sarah Plimpton.

If his daughters don't run him ragged, surely his work schedule will. Plimpton, 72, has never given himself a salary from The Paris Review, the literary magazine he founded in 1953 in Paris and which is about to publish its 150th issue.

"That's why I have to work to pay for my life,'' he quips.

To that end, following Tuesday's visit with a reporter and photographer from Albany, Plimpton would dash out of his building to catch a cab to the British Broadcasting Corp. studios for a live interview. Later that day he would fly to Chicago for another day of filming a movie.

He bemoans that the following day he has to first fly to Washington to catch a connection to Albany. Plimpton will make two appearances at the University at Albany today. He's scheduled to talk about writing and participatory journalism, he appeared bemused to learn.

Cultural bridge

Plimpton is a cultural bridge to the 21st century. The early years of the 20th century, too.

Not that he particularly cares how he's best known. If more people are now familiar with the 72-year-old man of letters for cameos in Oscar-winning movies like "Good Will Hunting'' or TV video game commercials, it's all the same with him.

Plimpton spent last weekend in Chicago, where he began filming scenes for the upcoming movie "Visitors.'' He sheepishly admitted he's not sure who's directing the film, a remake of the French film by the same name.

"I play a museum curator. I know Christina Applegate is the star,'' Plimpton explained. "She was in 'Married With Children,' the TV series. I was in the show once, but I've never seen it.

"I know it sounds odd, but I mainly watch only sports or news on TV. I was also in 'ER' but I've never seen it either.''

Being recognized

All Plimpton desired last Saturday night in Chicago was to watch on television his beloved Boston Bruins in a hockey playoff game. This is the team that let him get in goal for part of one period for his book "Open Net.''

The TV in his hotel room wasn't receiving the game, so he found the nearest sports bar, The Alumni Club. Baby boomer guys surrounded him almost immediately.

" 'Paper Lion,' right?'' one of them said. "What football team did you play for?'' He published "Paper Lion'' in 1966 about playing quarterback in an exhibition game for the Detroit Lions. (It was later made into a motion picture with Alan Alda playing George Plimpton.)

Moments later in the Alumni Club, Plimpton recalled, a group of young women came up to him.

"Look, look, it's him,'' they squealed. " 'Good Will Hunting,' right?''

Plimpton chuckled at the recollection. "You get both. They're both flattering. I don't care what you get complimented for, it's always very nice.''

Four decades ago there was no question how Plimpton was best known, as editor of the literary journal The Paris Review. The quarterly magazine was a forum for previously unpublished writers such as Philip Roth and John Updike, authors who would go on to dominate American fiction for decades. It also featured lengthy interviews, such as Plimpton talking with his pal Ernest Hemingway.


During the 1960s, there was little doubt Plimpton was best known as America's foremost participatory journalist, writing about what might be considered a teenager's fantasies: sparring with world champion boxer Archie Moore, playing quarterback for the Lions and guard for basketball's Boston Celtics. Or centerfold photographer for Playboy magazine and trapeze artist for the circus. The list goes on, as did the books each adventure produced.

Playing with -- and against -- the world's most famous athletes in order to write about the experience is a format many have copied, but no one's ever done it as successfully.

"What seems to often be overlooked is the most important part -- you have to be able to write,'' he said. "The point of doing it is to sit down and write.''

Plimpton recently finished an essay for Time magazine on Muhammad Ali, his friend of more than 35 years (Plimpton was in the Oscar-winning movie "When We Were Kings,'' about Ali's famous fight in Zaire vs. George Foreman). The magazine wanted a short piece on one of the figures it regards as among the century's 100 most famous.

"I had a lot of trouble with it, to be honest,'' he said. "They wanted 900 words. That's tough for me. I'm not a dash man, I'm more of a miler. Nine-thousand words is more my style.''

The dichotomy between the 21st-century Plimpton vs. the early 20th is revealed regularly. He alternates between a 60-year-old black Underwood manual typewriter in his study, and a Macintosh Power PC located nearby.

Watching birds

A devoted ornithologist, he is putting the finishing touches on a book that is primarily about bird watching. The longtime Audubon magazine contributor has traveled to the African Congo to view a rare peacock and has been to the Amazon to look at Hoatzins, which he described as "not particularly rare but very prehistoric looking.''

The book will include chapters on hang gliding and parachuting. The working title is "Stepping Out of Air,'' which is how poet and Paris Review co-founder Peter Matthiessen described a crane coming to rest.

Meanwhile Plimpton works frequently in the movies.

"I've been pegged, I'm afraid,'' he explained. "I'm sort of the prince of the cameos. Sometimes I think the producers think I'm going to write about the movies, which I never do. But they keep inviting me back.''


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