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George Plimpton, 76; 'Paper Lion' author, longtime literary editor, amateur athlete

George Plimpton, whose 50-year literary career bridged the worlds of sports and high culture, died at his Manhattan home Thursday night. He was 76.

His assistant, Thomas Moffett, said that the cause of death has not been determined and that Mr. Plimpton died in his sleep. He had recently signed a book contract to write his memoirs and was planning a trip to Cuba.

Genial wit, bon vivant, and man of parts, Mr. Plimpton seemed to have known everyone and to have done or tried to do everything. As longtime editor of The Paris Review, he first published the works of writers Philip Roth, Mona Simpson, V.S. Naipaul, Jack Kerouac, and T. Coraghessan Boyle, as well as a legendary, long-running interview series that included Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Grace Paley, Ezra Pound, E.L. Doctorow, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Henry Miller, E.M. Forster, and Gunter Grass.

But it was as a living personification of James Thurber's Walter Mitty character that Mr. Plimpton found his greatest fame, with the difference that he actually did the sort of things Mitty only imagined.

In the 1960s, as research for articles in Sports Illustrated, he boxed several rounds with light-heavyweight Archie Moore, pitched against major league baseball stars at an All-Star game, played several minutes in a live game with the Boston Celtics, as a goalie with the Boston Bruins, and as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions.

Most of those exploits became books, including "Out of My League," "Open Net," "The Bogey Man," and his one true bestseller, "Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback," his 1966 exploit with the Detroit Lions.

Mr. Plimpton was gangly, standing 6-feet-4-inches, and not notably athletic, but that did not matter. While reporting on the games and teams, he was acting out the fantasies of Everyfan. He played tennis against Pancho Gonzales and golf against Sam Snead. He carried the act beyond sports, performing as an aerialist with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers circus and as a percussionist for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

It was as a writer that Mr. Plimpton excelled at demystifying the world of pro sports, and he did so by gaining the confidence of those who indulged him. While some dismissed him as a dilettante, few who read Mr. Plimpton weren't chuckling at his descriptions of NFL rookies being hazed or trying to slip a fastball past Willie Mays at Yankee Stadium. With characteristic drollery, he later said of facing Mays, "I got him to pop up, only the ball came down near the monuments in center field."

Though seldom grouped with 1960s New Journalism practitioners like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, Mr. Plimpton as a sportswriter was every bit as influential on a younger generation of nonfiction writers. Until Mr. Plimpton arrived, chroniclers of professional sports mostly sat on the sidelines, analyzing the action.

"Not many appreciate how good the journalism was in those books, because his personality tended to obscure the prose," said author and baseball expert Daniel Okrent. "Yet he told you an amazing amount about how players behaved and how teams operated. He was underrated as a writer."

For "Paper Lion," the 36-year-old writer auditioned at the Lions' summer training camp. Inserted into an intrasquad game at quarterback, a bumbling Mr. Plimpton guided his team to minus-29 yards in five plays. "Paper Lion" helped make a star out of Lions lineman Alex Karras and was filmed in 1968 with Alan Alda in the starring role.

Some of Mr. Plimpton's best writing animated a classic Sports Illustrated "profile" of baseball phenom Sidd Finch, published on April 1, 1985. Finch, a Tibetan mystic who could hurl a fastball 168 miles per hour, was actually an April Fool's joke concocted by Mr. Plimpton and his editors. Thousands of SI readers bought it hook, line, and slider. It later became a novel, "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch."

George Ames Plimpton was born in New York to a wealthy family. His father was a lawyer and diplomat who at one time served as deputy US representative to the United Nations. The son had an elite young life -- Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard (where he edited the Lampoon), Cambridge University -- and also served as a tank driver in the US Army in Europe in the late 1940s.

While Mr. Plimpton was at Cambridge, he was hired in 1953 as editor of the newly founded Paris Review, designed to showcase unknown or little-known writers in English -- fiction writers and poets -- and to publish interviews with literary giants. Those "Writers at Work" interviews were periodically collected in book form, although many of the earlier interviews are out of print.

"He was the great ringmaster of the Paris Review," said Robert Silvers, the longtime editor of the New York Review of Books, who joined the Paris Review in 1954 and was Paris editor until Mr. Plimpton moved it to New York in the late 1950s. "He kept it going, did its famous interviews himself, including the one with Hemingway. He was a superb, elegant editor. He raised the money and found patron after patron."

Despite its prestige, the review was always a shoestring operation with a nearly empty cashbox. Mr. Plimpton made final corrections to the 50th anniversary issue, to be published next month, the night before he died.

Mr. Plimpton had friends throughout the worlds of sports, politics, and the arts, from Hemingway to Muhammad Ali. He was especially close to President Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Senator Robert Kennedy of New York. President Kennedy once proposed that Mr. Plimpton try being president for a day and suggested the following Feb. 30. Mr. Plimpton was walking with Robert Kennedy when the senator was fatally shot by Sirhan Sirhan in a Los Angeles hotel June 5, 1968. He and others jumped on Sirhan and wrestled him to the ground.

In another permutation of the Mitty act, Mr. Plimpton had minor parts in many television dramas and movies, including a walk-on part in "Lawrence of Arabia" and as a villain in "Rio Lobo," gunned down by John Wayne. An avid fireworks aficionado, he was honorary fireworks commissioner for the city of New York. In 2002, he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

He wrote more than 30 books, including children's books, anthologies, and biographies.

Moffett said there will be a memorial service at a date to be announced. Mr. Plimpton leaves his wife, Sarah Dudley Plimpton, and four children.

Joseph P. Kahn of the Globe staff contributed to this report. David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

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