George Plimpton discusses filmmaking, life

On Feb. 18 in Brooks-Rogers Auditorium George Plimpton, writer and editor-in-chief of the Paris Review, gave a talk about his various acting experiences. Plimpton is a participatory journalist, who besides appearing in a multitude of movies has been a quarterback for the Detroit Lions, a pianist at Late Night at the Apollo, point guard for the Boston Celtics and has filled many, many other zany roles over the years.

The lecture focused on the documentary film When We Were Kings. Plimpton arrived at the podium and confessed, “I only found out five minutes ago that I’m supposed to talk about documentary films.”

The documentary When We Were Kings is a film about the 1977 Boxing Heavyweight Championship fight between George Foreman and Mohammad Ali. Plimpton, as a sportswriter for Sports Illustrated, was present at the fight, which took place in Zaire,.

Plimpton explained, “I was the number two boxing writer at Sports Illustrated and I didn’t know much about boxing. I got to go to most of the great fights though, because Marc Cram, who is incidentally the only person I’ve ever met whose name is a palindrome, the number one boxing writer at SI, didn’t like to fly.”

Plimpton then proceeded to outline the atmosphere surrounding the fight. Everyone was sure, according to Plimpton, that Foreman was going to crush Ali. When the final bell rang, however, the results were somewhat different. To the amazement of many, Ali pulled off the upset and won the Rumble in the Jungle.

“It was the most compelling sports event I’ve ever seen,” Plimpton said.

Plimpton turned his attention next to the film When We Were Kings and the story of its creation. The film was directed by Leon Gast, who specializes in music documentaries. He was in Zaire at the time of the fight to film the “African-Woodstock” that was scheduled to coincide with the fight. “A large number of African-American bands from the United States were going to perform at this music festival,” Plimpton said, “and Gast was going to make a documentary about it, not the fight.” However, Gast ended up filming many fight-related events, such as Foreman and Ali’s training camps. A cut above Foreman’s eye delayed the fight, and as a result the music festival, for six weeks. When the bands finally arrived Gast started filming them and forgot about the fight.

Gast’s music documentary never saw the light of day because he lost his financial backers. Plimpton explained how this occurred. “The chief backer of the project was the Liberian Finance Committee. Well, one day Leon Gast was watching television in his Upper East Side apartment and he saw a picture of the Liberian Finance Minister standing on a beach, bound and blindfolded, taking a bullet to the head.”

According to Plimpton, 20 years passed and someone finally came up with the idea of using Gast’s tapes in a film. Plimpton and Norman Mailer, who was also present in Zaire for the fight, were brought in to tell their stories, more footage was added, and When We Were King was born.

Plimpton told about the night When We Were Kings won an Oscar for best documentary film. Plimpton had gone out to Hollywood in the hope that he might get to go on stage and help receive the Oscar. He never did, but he did get to hold the Oscar later in the evening. Gast gave it to him so that Plimpton could get into the post-Oscar Governor’s Ball, for which Plimpton did not have a ticket.

“I figured I would just stroll on through with this big golden statue in my hands. When I got to the door, though, the bouncer said, ‘Where’s your ticket?’ and I didn’t get in, that is until they snuck me through the kitchen. The point of the story, however, is that the Oscar is of no material value.”

Plimpton then shifted to talking about his various other acting experiences. He told a story about a John Wayne movie, Plimpton’s first acting role, in which he played a would-be assassin of the Duke. Next came a story about living in a Bedouin encampment for several days while filming Lawrence of Arabia. He then provided numerous examples of his inability to remember lines.

After all the movies he has appeared in, however, Plimpton hardly ever writes about the experiences. “I find it funny that directors keep letting me in their movies because I’m terrible and I never write about the movies.”

The entire evening Plimpton appeared to be under the impression that the students present were all aspiring filmmakers. He continually offered to appear in any movies that the audience members made, provided he did not have to speak.

A question period followed and Plimpton answered a wide range of questions. Audience members asked about his upcoming interview with Norman Mailer and how he got started on such a multi-faceted career. In response to one question Plimpton explained a movie script he is writing. “It’s going to be about Paris in the 1950s, when I was there with a lot of American writers, poets and artists. I plan on it being a black and white movie about love affairs.”

When Plimpton had finished his talk, which lasted for about 90 minutes, the crowd responded with a significant amount of applause. Michal Izquierdo ‘00 said of Plimpton, “He had a fascinating way of looking at the world, as if he had experienced everything it had to offer, had attended every important event for the past 40 years, attempted every profession known to man. The thing is, he has. And he is still laughing.”

The evening was sponsored jointly by WMCA, the English Department, and the President of the College.

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