George A. Plimpton ’48, the literary critic and legendary prankster whose career as a humorist began at the Harvard Lampoon, died Thursday at his Manhattan apartment. He was 76.
From 1953 until his death, Plimpton edited the prestigious Paris Review, nurturing the nascent careers of Jack Kerouac and Phillip Roth.
But the irreverent Plimpton was best known as the author of more than two dozen books about his eclectic stints as a boxer, hockey goalie, orchestral percussionist, trapeze artist and pyrotechnic.
In one of his most notable exploits as a “participatory journalist,” Plimpton pitched part of an inning of the 1959 All-Star exhibition game, giving up a home run to Frank Thomas, but getting Willie Mays to pop up.
Plimpton also convinced the Detroit Lions to let him play third-string quarterback in a 1963 scrimmage.
He lost 30 yards but garnered the material for a bestselling 1966 book, Paper Lion, which was made into a motion picture two years later starring Alan Alda as Plimpton.
Despite having no formal dramatic training, Plimpton built his own Hollywood career as a self-described “prince of cameos,” first appearing on the silver screen in 1962 when he dressed up as a Bedouin and pushed his way onto the set of Lawrence of Arabia.
In Good Will Hunting, he played the part of a new-age psychiatrist who, aggravated by Matt Damon’s character, screams, “No more shenanigans! No more tomfoolery! No more ballyhoo!”
Both films won Academy Awards, as did Warren Beatty’s Reds and Spike Lee’s 1996 documentary When We Were Kings, both of which featured appearances by Plimpton.
“It would seem to me that a film director should require my presence if he sees an Oscar in the future,” Plimpton wrote in 1999.
His television credits include “E.R.” and “The Simpsons,” for which he provided the voice of a professor running a spelling bee in a February 2003 episode.
Plimpton exhibited his Lampoon-cultivated humor when, as an April Fools’ joke in 1985, he wrote an article for Sports Illustrated profiling Sidd Finch, a fictitious Harvard dropout who learned to throw a 168-mile-per-hour fastball while studying yoga at a Tibetan monastery.
Plimpton wrote that Finch had reported to the New York Mets’ spring training camp, thrilling gullible fans of the team.
The first letters of Plimpton’s opening words combined to spell “Happy April Fools’ Day.”
After a two-week media frenzy, Sports Illustrated’s editors announced that Plimpton’s article was a hoax.