Thursday, August 11, 2016

George Plimpton: Acting with The Duke, Swinging on a Trapeze, and Playing Quarterback!

Plimpton and Joe Schmidt.
It’s embarrassing now to admit that I didn’t know much about George Plimpton when I started watching his TV specials at age 14. I knew he had written the nonfiction book Paper Lion, in which he went “undercover” as a rookie quarterback on the Detroit Lions football team. And I knew a 1968 movie had been made from Paper Lion starring Alan Alda as Plimpton. That was pretty much the extent of my knowledge about him when I watched the first of his six TV specials.

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.
There’s a lot of humor in this behind-the-scenes documentary of life on a movie set as George spends much of the episode rehearsing his only line of dialogue. As he stands behind Wayne, he points his rifle at a lawman and utters: “This here’s your warrant, mister.” However, when it’s time to shoot the scene, director Howard Hawks walks over to Plimpton and tells him to change the line to: “I got a warrant right here, Sheriff.” The befuddled actor jokes that he spent a week rehearsing his line--but he still manages to speak the new one with appropriate menace. He then reacts convincingly when John Wayne “pops” him in the head with a rifle.

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.

George Plimpton--everyman.
In his obituary on George Plimpton, Bill Curry, who was the Colts center when Plimpton played, recalls some details not in the TV special: “(On) day one, he shocked us by requesting to get into the ‘nutcracker’ drill as a ball carrier. Now, the ‘nutcracker’ is one blocker, one tackler, and one runner. It is the most primitive, violent one-on-one drill in football. Well, when (linebacker) Ray May planted George head first in the dirt on his first carry, the ball went one way and George's right thumb went the other. "Dear Gawd, look at this!" he exclaimed as the injured digit dangled uselessly. We all assumed our little television experiment was over. We did not know George Plimpton. That afternoon, he was back in pads, taking snaps with the other quarterbacks.”

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.


  1. If I remember correctly from the movie and book, on Plimpton's first play with the Lions, he took the snap, turned, ran into his own man, and fumbled, then recovered for a loss of yardage. around and collapsed on the field, untouched. On the second play he turned, and fell to the ground without even being touched. On the third play he was sacked.

    1. That's hilarious and shows that Plimpton had a great sense of humor about himself and that it's really, really hard to play quarterback in the NFL.

  2. I'd never heard of the specials before. They sound fascinating, and it was probably a revolutionary idea at the time, no?

    Love the story about his "death" scene in the John Wayne movie. Being yanked against a wall in that way certainly wouldn't leave much time for award-winning acting!

    Will look for the book Paper Lion. Thanks!

    1. I don't know if the Plimpton specials were the first of their kind, but they were definitely unique thanks to their "star."

  3. How happy must've been Wayne and Hawks to have what was essentially an hour-long plug for their last movie together on a major network. Well, ABC, anyway. Still didn't do well. The "girl" in it is future Paramount prez Sherry Lansing.

    And I thought then, and still do, that the first version of Plympton's line was better....

    1. I agree about George's dialogue. Sherry Lansing was much better in RIO LOBO than Jennifer O'Neill, the film's female star.

  4. "The Duke" was also the name the NFL gave it's football before the 1970 merger. It was named after Giants owner Wellington Mara. Also, as I recall, the Lions players knew pretty quickly that George was not an actual player.