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George Plimpton: the ultimate amateur

A new documentary captures George Plimpton (center) as both the man at celebrity parties and the writer who tried his hand at professional football, hockey, and boxing.
A new documentary captures George Plimpton (center) as both the man at celebrity parties and the writer who tried his hand at professional football, hockey, and boxing.Walter Iooss Jr.; Sports Illustrated; Laemmle Zeller Films

For his final book as a participatory journalist, George Plimpton tended goal for the Boston Bruins. He stuck his notebook in his shin guard, joked about tucking a flask there, too, and hovered, stick straight, skates slipping beneath him.

"When he went down he stayed down," recalls former Bruin Mike Milbury, who played a 1977 preseason game with Plimpton. "It was amusing to try to watch him scramble to his feet, like a turtle trying to roll over. He was terrible."

Even with Plimpton's imposing New England pedigree, Milbury remembers him as "open and kind to everybody." Yet the writer's name doesn't come up as often as it once did. Like his books "Open Net," about the Bruins, or "Paper Lion," about the 1963 Detroit Lions, it's almost unknown to younger readers.


The documentary "Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself" returns to prominence the writer, editor, and man-about-town whose signature literary device was to try and then inevitably fail. Plimpton, who died in 2003, at 76, serves as posthumous narrator. The film opens Friday at the Coolidge Corner.

Interviews with Milbury, immediate family members, and literary brethren from Plimpton's decades as editor of The Paris Review round out the portrait, largely composed of archival footage collected by co-directors Luke Poling and Tom Bean.

Poling, of Newton, and Bean, a Marblehead High School graduate now living in Brooklyn, N.Y., met in 2001 doing entry-level work for the film and television company Scout Productions, then based in Boston. Tasked with cleaning out a basement, the pair discovered a shared taste in movies and music and started collaborating.

A few years later they found themselves in Plimpton's widow's basement. "We'd reach into a box and pull out letters to Mummy and Daddy or a note from Warren Beatty," says Bean.

"The whole film was a case of 'We should not be allowed in here, we should not be allowed to touch this,'" says Poling.


The film includes a panning shot over a photograph of a typical Plimpton party: Truman Capote, Mario Puzo, Peter Matthiessen, Ralph Ellison, and so on. Run of the mill for a guy who rubbed shoulders with Princess Elizabeth before she was queen and Jacqueline Bouvier before she was Jackie Kennedy.

Poling and Bean suspected they had something special when a package arrived from the California State Archives.

Plimpton had been stumping for Robert F. Kennedy during his presidential bid. On June 5, 1968, he witnessed Kennedy's murder and helped disarm Sirhan Sirhan.

Poling and Bean sat in awe as a reel-to-reel tape played of Plimpton's deposition to the Los Angeles police. "He was very strong for a small man," relays Plimpton. They used almost the entire track.

"It's the one thing George never wrote about," explains Poling. "It was the most shaken and broken we heard him."

For all the breadth of experience Plimpton covered in life, there are those such as his agent, Tim Seldes, who admit on camera that his client could've plumbed greater depths.

Milbury remains a devoted admirer. "George was willing to do whatever he had to do to try to get a sense of playing goal," he says. "That, to me, is fearless."

Erin Trahan, who edits The Independent and moderates The DocYard’s summer series, can be reached at erin@erintrahan.net.