Ken Tucker
October 10, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Before Survivor’s Richard Hatch, before the Bachelors, before any of those pathetic saps stranded on Temptation Island, there was the first true pop-culture reality star: the elegantly jubilant ”participatory journalist” George Plimpton, who died Sept. 26 of an apparent heart attack at age 76. Plimpton, cofounder of The Paris Review, the literary journal about to celebrate its 50th anniversary, was most famous for inserting his 6-foot-4-inch frame into improbable situations, such as playing quarterback for the ’63 Detroit Lions (yielding the classic book of reportage Paper Lion), going three rounds with boxer Archie Moore, and pinging a triangle with Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic.

In these endeavors, Plimpton was, strictly speaking, a failure (he lost 32 yards for the Lions, for instance). By present-day ”reality” standards, he was a loser. But — and this is a distinction lost among the sillies who eat insects or cavort in hot tubs for TV booty — there’s a difference between being a failure (someone who can be enlightened by his errors) and a loser (someone who Just Doesn’t Get It). For Plimpton, failure at an appointed task gave him an up-close opportunity to appreciate the skill and pleasure true professionals take in their fields. And in writing about this with such flair, he was never an artistic loser.

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, which gave Plimpton many of his early assignments, will have the corner on his athletic stunts; the book-chat world will acknowledge the man of letters. It falls to this space, therefore, to recognize Plimpton’s showbiz resume — roles for which he was hired to essentially play himself, or to attempt to blend into some highly unlikely atmosphere his Ivy League blue-bloodedness. (By the way, Plimpton’s classic WASP look — thatch of roughly combed hair surmounting a blue blazer, button-down shirt, rep tie, and khakis — obviated a queer-eye makeover of this straight guy.)

Plimpton spirit-gummed a droopy mustache to his stiff upper lip and was gunned down for his efforts by no less than John Wayne in a bit role as an outlaw in 1970’s Rio Lobo. His authoritative mien was well deployed as a publisher in Warren Beatty’s Reds, a therapist in Good Will Hunting, a lawyer in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, a talk-show host in Little Man Tate. After Reds, Hunting, and When We Were Kings (the boxing documentary he appeared in) all won Academy Awards, Plimpton remarked, ”It would seem to me that a film director should require my presence if he sees an Oscar in the future.” On TV, he was a literal cartoon of himself overseeing a spelling bee in a 2003 episode of The Simpsons. In ER, he had a brief role as Noah Wyle’s — what else? — got-rocks grandfather.

Beatty referred to him as ”the man who never ate an olive.” Why? Because Plimpton once told the actor-director that he had ”never knowingly eaten one,” and that fact lodged in Beatty’s prodigious memory like — well, like an olive pit. Yet Plimpton experienced his share of reality. A staunch campaigner for Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential run, Plimpton helped subdue Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, by throttling him. His curt remark to The Associated Press about that? ”Bad stuff.”

George Plimpton spent the vast majority of his life, however, doing and creating good stuff. And goodwill: Legend has it that he went to Harlem’s Apollo Theater for amateur night, faced a typically discerning audience, offered a spontaneous piano composition, and walked away with applause and a prize. Oh, what I would have given to see him try out for American Idol; he’d have been the only contestant to defy Simon Cowell’s cheeseball irony with qualities Cowell and his ilk will never possess: grace and wit.

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