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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.
Plimpton also earned a temporary position with the New York Philharmonic, playing the sleigh bells, triangle, bass drum and gong.
Born to an aristocratic New York family on March 18, 1927, Plimpton attended the elite prep school Phillips Exeter Academy.
“Even in those days he had a gift for coming up with amusing pranks,” said Edward M. Lamont ’48, Plimpton’s classmate at both Exeter and Harvard.
Plimpton’s Exeter record was marred by disciplinary troubles, including one incident in which he was caught at night while “carrying a stuffed rhinoceros head into the Assembly Hall,” Lamont said.
Three months prior to graduation, Exeter officials asked Plimpton to leave.
Plimpton’s Harvard years were dominated by his involvement in the Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine.
Plimpton “majored in Lampoon and minored in everything else,” said Robert C. Cobb ’48, a fellow member of the Lampoon.
On the night of their induction into the Lampoon, Cobb said Plimpton was so drunk that he “ran out into the street and was run over by a parked car.”
Former Crimson Managing Editor J. Anthony Lewis ’48 said the Lampoon battled bitterly with The Crimson during Plimpton’s years, playing a tug-of-war with the Lampoon’s prized Ibis.
In one of his more memorable Lampoon pranks, Plimpton—riding a horse and clad in a British military uniform—stole the microphone from Gov. Robert F. Bradford ’23 during a ceremony in Lexington commemorating Paul Revere’s midnight ride, according to Cobb.
“[The Poonsters] yelled, ‘disperse, ye rebels,’ but nobody dispersed, and the affair died without a bang but with a whimper,” Cobb said. “They expected that state troopers would tackle them, but nobody moved.”
Plimpton was also a varsity squash letterman.
Plimpton’s graduation was delayed until 1950 by two years of military service, but he maintained ties with his former classmates, including Robert F. Kennedy ’48.
When Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles on June 6, 1968, Plimpton—who was walking in front of the senator—wrestled the gun away from assassin Sirhan Sirhan.
Plimpton was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2002 and named a Chevalier of the French Légion d’Honneur.
“If I had my life to live over again, I think I would have been George Plimpton,” Cobb said.
Plimpton is survived by his wife and their two daughters, as well as two children from his first marriage.
The cause of death was most likely a heart attack, his agent, Timothy Seldes, told The New York Times.
His family requested that contributions in his memory be sent to The Paris Review Foundation, 541 East 72nd St., New York, NY, 10021.
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