George Plimpton George Plimpton

Author George Plimpton was making reality television long before anyone used the term.

Plimpton's exercises in participatory journalism led to the groundbreaking 1968 best seller Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last String Quarterback, which tells how he suited up with the Detroit Lions. It was a concept easily adapted to television. He did network TV specials in the late 1960s and 70s where he played triangle with the New York Philharmonic, performed as a trapeze artist, went before an audience as a (terrible) stand-up comic and got schooled by John Wayne about acting in a western on the set of Rio Lobo.

Archival footage from the specials is among the gems directors Tom Bean and Luke Poling unearthed for their film Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, which premieres May 16 (9/8c) on the PBS documentary series American Masters. Plimpton, who died in 2003 at the age of 76, was so ubiquitous on television that his mellifluous voice — with its distinctive, aristocratic sounding New England accent — serves as the narration for the film.

Plimpton, who also took on TV and film acting roles and even played himself on The Simpsons, had serious literary ambitions. For 50 years, he edited The Paris Review, known for publishing the works of the best writers of the 20th century along with in-depth, candid author interviews. While Plimpton was prolific over his career, it's clear he wasn't well suited for the solitary aspect of a writer's life.

"Writers are not normally the most extraverted of people and a lot of people we talked to mentioned that if George's options were to play tennis than sit down and finish a chapter, he was far more willing to go play tennis," says Poling. "The idea of sitting down and writing was very difficult for George to do because there was so much other stuff he was interested in and wanted to learn about."

Plimpton's fame gave him entrée to his real-life adventures. In his later years, he used his professorial demeanor to poke fun at highbrow pomposity (he hosted Mousterpiece Theater on Disney Channel) and parodied his do-it-yourself persona in commercials. "George functioned really well in that sweet spot between high and low brow," Bean notes.  Some serious writers said his exploits made him dilettante. But he couldn't resist the money, which he used to keep The Paris Review afloat.

Plimpton's glamorous life included a friendship with the Kennedys, and some of the most evocative moments in the film recount his time on the campaign trail with Bobby Kennedy during the 1968 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Plimpton was in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Kennedy was cut down by an assassin's bullet after having won the California primary. A news photo shows the writer struggling to get the gun from the hand of the shooter, Sirhan Sirhan.

"We knew of photograph," says Bean. "It was credited to the California State Archive. So we called them up and asked for a copy of it and whatever else they had. They asked if we wanted the audio. We said 'what do you mean?' The said 'we have the audio of George giving a deposition to the police.'" The author is heard talking about what happened that night. For the rest of his life, it was a topic the normally loquacious Plimpton would never discuss.

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