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A Paper Lion, on Screen

On the 60th anniversary of The Paris Review, Taylor Plimpton, son of the legendary quarterly’s founding editor-in-chief George Plimpton, reflects on the soon-to-be-released documentary, Plimpton!, and his father’s inspiring life.

George Plimpton photographing elephants in Africa for Life magazine in 1972

In 1959, preparing to box then light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore

In 1962, watching the America’s Cup races with Jacqueline Kennedy (third from left), President John F. Kennedy and friends

George Plimpton played so many roles in real life—author, editor, sportsman, participatory journalist, literary bon vivant, Manhattan socialite—that it’s easy to forget that he also played roles in some 20 or so Hollywood movies, including Oscar winners like Good Will Hunting (in which he depicted a psychologist accused by Matt Damon of being gay) and Lawrence of Arabia (legend has it that if you look closely, you can spot him in a desert shot, one of hundreds of background Bedouins, but the only 6-foot-4 one whose black socks and white ankles are sticking out from beneath his robe). Fortunately for viewers, Plimpton will be gracing the silver screen once more, this time in a new documentary titled Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, which will be released in theaters in New York City in late May, and in Los Angeles in June.

Directors Tom Bean and Luke Poling, who spent some four years assembling rare archival material and interviewing everyone from Hugh Hefner to James Lipton, describe the film as a celebration of “a life that is hard to believe was actually lived by just one man.” In this light, the movie reveals sides of Plimpton unknown even to those closest to him (like say, for instance, his son). Never before had I seen footage of my dad as a trapeze artist, or as a stand-up comedian tutored by Woody Allen, or as a member of the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. (It turns out that, as with the vast majority of his participatory stints as an amateur in the world of the professional, he wasn’t very good at any of those undertakings, either.) While the movie has fun showing us Plimpton’s many comic failures, it also highlights his success as a talented (and often underappreciated) author, and as the dedicated editor of The Paris Review, the celebrated literary quarterly, which, thanks in large part to his longtime devotion, is currently celebrating its 60th year in print.

My father passed away 10 years ago; for 89 wonderful minutes, this touching documentary succeeds in bringing him back to life. And such an enviable, amazing existence it was! Who wouldn’t want to drive a race car, or host legendary cocktail parties, or fraternize with the Kennedy family or with Muhammad Ali or with Hemingway? Often funny, sometimes heartbreaking and always surprising, the film (like the man it honors) is a joyous and inspiring reminder of what an adventure life can be.

Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself opens on May 22 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center/Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 W. 65th St., plimptonmovie.com