I met Tom Bean in front of his Greenpoint apartment, which sits in a row of buildings overlooking McGolrick park. The day was muggy and damp and I was sweating profusely from biking from West Street. But despite my haggard appearance, Tom made me feel immediately at home in his airy abode, which doubles as his office.
Tom’s film, Plimpton!, which he co-wrote and directed with his friend Luke Poling, is airing on PBS tonight (at 9pm), as part of the American Masters series. And that’s after the documentary having already made the indie festival rounds, finished a 20 city theatrical run, and debuted to critical acclaim.
Tom is smart and eloquent, using phrases like “the shifting cultural landscape of Greenpoint” in casual conversation. And that was before we even hunkered down to discuss the film itself.
A bit of background: The second half of the film’s title, which I initially left out (for suspense) is curious: Starring George Plimpton as Himself. That’s because the entire film is narrated, posthumously, by George Plimpton and the people who knew him. Plimpton’s life was a fuller than most – he is best known as one of the forerunners of participatory journalism or “new journalism” as it is now called, in the vein of (and side by side with) writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, and Tom Wolfe.
Plimpton threw himself into his prolific career with full force. As the co-founder and editor of the Paris Review, he spent 50 plus years immersing himself in the lives of his subjects–hanging out with the Kennedy’s inner circle, photographing Playboy models, boxing againt Archie Moore, and flying trapeze… while simultaneiusly writing 15 books and making cameos in films like Good Will Hunting.
“I didn’t know much about Plimpton before making the film,” Tom explained. “For me he was this secret, ubiquitous guy who would show up in films, like Good Will Hunting or LA Story. Luke (Tom’s pal and co-director) turned me onto him and once I saw all of the diverse and interesting stuff he did, I was like ‘Let’s make this movie.'”
Tom is first and foremost a screenwriter and had spent a few years in LA working on various projects before Luke convinced him to move to Boston for almost a year, to fully delve into the archives of Plimpton’s life– “We approached George’s wife about the film and she had stacks and stacks of material –boxes upon boxes piled with videotapes and reels of film and audio cassettes from George, so we just filled up Luke’s car, 4 or 5 times, and spent months going through all this old footage.”
It’s clear that spending so much time with a man who is no longer alive makes looking back at his life even more magical, although it was pretty fantastical to begin with. “He was a guest star on like 50 television shows and movies,” Tom explained. “He had his own TV show in the 70’s, which was really the first of its kind, about him as this fish-out-of-water journalist. I mean, he even joined the NY Philharmonic and played a gong for Leonard Bernstein. That’s my favorite part of the whole film.”
“But what he was really doing was getting behind the curtain and throwing himself into the story to create a really compelling first person narrative.” he added. “George functioned perfectly in the intersection between high and low brow; he didn’t privilege one or the other. He was curious about everyone.”
Plimpton wasn’t just his own character, in that he wasn’t at all self-obsessed. He helped launch the careers of dozens of famous writers, everyone from Philip Roth to Jack Kerouac (“The Mexican Girl,” first published in the Paris Review, was a chapter from what later became On the Road). Michael Pollan was his assistant. Jane Fonda interned there. In fact, the Review, under Plimpton, was first to publish hundreds of burgeoning writers, from Miranda July to Johathan Franzen.
“George was always surrounding himself with really young people,” Tom explained, with enthusiasm. “He was constantly rejuvenating the blood of the magazine by hiring all of these young people, and then launching their careers.”
I asked Tom if he was excited for the film to make the transition to television.
“We had a good run for an independent little film, but PBS is a great place for us to be, because the amount of eyes they get on their series is huge, as in 2-3 million viewers,” he answered. “And a lot of those viewers are from an older generation so they know exactly who George Plimpton is. He was really famous when he was young, but he’s fallen into absolute obscurity at this point.”
Chatting with Tom, I felt like I had one foot in this circle of creative and talented people, a New York world that he is very much a part of. One of the film’s editors, Casey Brooks, also edited the forthcoming comedy, Obvious Child, a few scenes of which were filmed in Tom’s bedroom. And Tom’s upcoming project, for none other than the Paris Review, is a series of doc-style shorts on authors, including Donald Antrim, Ben Lerner, and graphic novelist, Gabrielle Bell, all of whom also live in Greenpoint.
It is on that note of creativity and a life well lived, that I leave you with Tom’s lingering sentiment about Plimpton:
“As an artist, his life was his great work.”
And if that isn’t enough to convince to you watch the film, check out the trailer below:
Plimpton premieres on PBS tonight at 9pm EST.