Essay: George Plimpton: The Professional Amateur

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ON the walls of George Plimpton's apartment and office, amid the photographs, posters, paintings, prints, drawings, letters, manuscript pages, animal heads, odd hats and assorted other mementos that take the place of wallpaper, are several cartoons. In one, a patient about to go under the knife looks up at the masked surgeon and plaintively asks: "Wait a minute! How do I know you're not George Plimpton?" In another, set in some imaginary banana republic whose government is about to be overthrown, one mustachioed officer demands of his coconspirators: "Before we proceed with the coup, gentlemen . . . which one of you is George Plimpton?" A third (discreetly exiled to the office bathroom) is set in a whorehouse. "See that new girl looking out the window?" one prostitute whispers to another. "I hear she's really George Plimpton."

The funniest part is that none of these situations, the last one excepted, is totally beyond the limits of the talent or imagination of George Plimpton, the world's consummate amateur. Sometimes, indeed, it is difficult to decide whether Plimpton is an amateur professional or a professional amateur, so intense is his desire to succeed in alien fields. He always loses but, in a larger sense, he always wins, proving that even in an age of constricting specialization a man can do almost anything he sets his mind to, if only for a moment. It is Plimpton's triumph that he has restored the word amateur—which today is so often a synonym for bungler—to its original and true connotation: someone who takes up an art or craft not for gain but for love.

Consider what he has done. He has sparred three bloody rounds (his blood) with Archie Moore, then light heavyweight champion of the world. He has pitched to major league baseball stars in Yankee Stadium; he has shanked and hooked his way over golf links in competition with the world's top moneymakers, and lost to Pancho Gonzales on the tennis court. He has fumbled hand-offs as a training-camp quarterback for the Detroit Lions and missed baskets while working out as a forward for the Boston Celtics.

Three years ago, he toured with the New York Philharmonic as a percussionist—and was severely chastised by Conductor Leonard Bernstein when he set off a rack of sleigh bells out of tempo, ruining the first movement of Mahler's Fourth Symphony. More recently he rode the high trapeze for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and, as a one-line badman in a yet-to-be-released western (Rio Lobo), he was shot and killed by John Wayne, who never could decide whether the tall (6 ft. 4 in.) bit player's name was Plimpleton, Pembleton, Parfilton or Plankton.

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