|Plimpton and Joe Schmidt.|
The premise of the Plimpton! TV specials was the same one the writer had explored in Paper Lion (and even earlier in his career): How would an average person fare in a “glamorous” profession? His first special premiered on ABC in 1970 and was subtitled “Shoot-out at Rio Lobo.” It traces Plimpton’s experience as an extra (billed as the “4th Gunman”) in the Howard Hawks Western Rio Lobo, which starred John Wayne.
|Plimpton with John Wayne.|
His big scene, though, is supposed to be when John Wayne shoots him. In preparation, Plimpton seeks advice from the stunt men on the set (one of them recommends that he die with his eyes open). However, when the time comes for his death scene, Plimpton is rigged to a harness that will pull him back into the saloon wall. He also learns that Jorge Rivero’s character will kill him instead of Wayne. When Henry fires, Plimpton is jerked back against the wall. It's a great effect—but, alas, leaves George no time for any acting during his “big death scene.”
In the other Plimpton! specials produced by David L. Wolper, George photographs elephants in Africa, tries his hand as a stand-up comic, and drives a race car. My two favorites, though, have George return as a quarterback (this time with the Colts) and train as a trapeze artist. The latter special is a fascinating examination of the strength and agility required to work on the trapeze. Plimpton prepares for weeks to perform what most of us would consider a simple trapeze move--“simple” only in comparison to the amazing feats we see high-wire artists routinely perform with ease.
In “The Great Quarterback Sneak,” Plimpton goes back to the football field. The difference this time is that everyone knows who he is. In Paper Lion, only the coaches knew that Plimpton was a journalist. Plimpton’s one regret from that experience was that the National Football League did not allow him to play in a pre-season game. In his TV special, Plimpton gets the opportunity to get on the field—even if it is during halftime—and run a few plays against his “former” team: the Detroit Lions. I don’t remember how Plimpton fared, but I suspect his success, if any, was modest.
The Plimpton! TV specials are entertaining, insightful, and funny. Yes, it’s amusing to watch an “ordinary guy” try to do the things that only extraordinary people can do. But these shows also serve as a testament to a tough-minded journalist that was willing to take some risks to satisfy his own curiosity—and who was modest enough to share his experiences with the world. George Plimpton didn’t mind if we chuckled at his experiences even if he took them seriously.