Monday, January 20, 2014

Paper Lion

Paper Lion (book)(Book: 1966, Film 1968)
Book written by
George Plimpton
Movie directed by Alex March
Screenplay by Lawrence Roman, based on the novel
Starring Alan Alda, Lauren Hutton, Joe Schmidt, Alex Karras, John Gordy, Mike Lucci, Pat Studstill. Vince Lombardi
IMDB Entry.

George Plimpton would seem an unlikely person to have a best seller about sports.  He was a Harvard and Cambridge educated intellectual, and editor in chief of The Paris Review, a well-regarded literary journal.  But he did love sports, and in 1958 came up with the idea that made his fame: showing how a regular person (Plimpton himself) would fare against professional athletes.

He started in 1958, facing a series of National League batters in an exhibition game.  He fared poorly (he tired badly and had to be relieved) but wrote a successful book about the experience called Out of My League.  His next role was to box against Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson.  But his biggest success was when he managed to make his way onto the exhibition season* roster of the Detroit Lions in 1963.

Plimpton’s background was supposed to be kept secret; he was the team’s new third-string quarterback, a rookie from Harvard who was trying to make the team.  The players, however, began to be suspicious as training camp progressed. 

The book not only covers Plimpton’s trials as a regular person trying to play with the pros, but lists anecdotes about the training camp and the other players.  Many stories involve defensive tackle Alex Karras, who wasn’t even in camp at the time.**

Plimpton got his chance to play in a team scrimmage,*** where he lost yardage on every play.  There was a plan to play him in an exhibition game, but Commissioner Peter Rozelle refused to let him.

Plimpton wrote up his experiences in articles in Sports Illustrated in 1964, and in 1966, they were expanded into a book.  It was a best seller.

And, like most best sellers, Hollywood decided to make it into the movie. To star, they picked an obscure actor best known for being the son of a big Broadway star.****  This was Alan Alda’s first major movie role and he certainly looked enough like Plimpton.  The film also had Lauren Hutton as his girlfriend (her first movie role).  And director Alex March had the idea of using actual football players as the members of the Lions, led by Alex Karras.

Plimpton is warnedThe movie took liberties on the book (and gleefully admitted to it).  Karras, of course, was in the camp, and Alda’s Plimpton actually played in an exhibition game.  It was otherwise a nice movie version of the book.

Alda’s career stalled for several years after the film (though he won a Golden Globe as Best Newcomer), but he eventually became a TV icon.  Hutton carved out a long career.  But probably the most surprising success at the time was Alex Karras, who, when he retired, became a successful actor in TV and movies like Blazing Saddles and Victor/Victoria. 

Director Alex March was a TV veteran, and continued to work on the small screen, with only one other movie to his credit.

Plimpton continued trying out other sports, most notably in
The Bogey Man, where he went on the PGA tour.  He also had a minor acting career, claimed the title of “Fireworks Commissioner of New York City,” and tended to pop up as one of the few intellectuals that the general public liked to see.  He died in 2003.

*As they called it at the time.

**He had been suspended for betting on games.

***Wearing the number “0.”

****Robert Alda, who created the role of Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls.


David Pinto said...

In the mid 1990s I was walking down 44th Street in Manhattan to meet a friend at the Harvard Club. A man pedaled past me on a bicycle. I thought he looked familiar, then realized it was George Plimpton! I suspect he had been coming from the Harvard Club. :-)

Hal said...

I reviewed this one a while back. I can't believe it still isn't on DVD. A really fascinating look at the pre-merger NFL of the Sixties.