Revisiting "Paper Lion," the Greatest Movie Ever Made About NFL Preseason
In 1963, George Plimpton went to training camp with the Detroit Lions and wrote a book about it. In 1967, with Alan Alda subbed for Plimpton, it became a movie.
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Labor Day weekend is upon us, which means that summer is almost over and the problematic wonder that is NFL football is right around the corner. We're nearing the end of preseason, a time when the rosters are still being settled, tickets are somehow still exorbitantly cost-prohibitive, and the games are frankly inferior to the decent CFL action elsewhere on the dial. Few people actually enjoy this, of course, and those opting out are mostly missing injuries and hilariously dropped passes. But that's not to say there isn't some value to be found in the NFL games that matter the least.
In 1963, George Plimpton braved the ennui and redundancy of professional football's silliest season to train and scrimmage with the Detroit Lions, resulting in the classic sports book Paper Lion. Five years later, a film adaptation came along, featuring a weird amalgam of players who originally practiced and trained with Plimpton and those who would later join (or re-join) the Lions. It is a strange but ultimately likeable little movie, in no small part thanks to its young star and future sex symbol, Alan Alda.
Alan Alda and the National Football League may be two American institutions that outwardly do not seem like a good fit, but there is evidence to the contrary. Nineteen of the 20 most watched programs in United States television history involve either Alan Alda or the Super Bowl. Moreover, three grueling NFL seasons is probably the closest approximation to how much Hawkeye Pierce aged from 1950 to 1953. There is a strange combination of fun and self-righteousness that envelop both the TV show M*A*S*H and the NFL. I liked pro football until it got a little preachy toward the end.
Alan Alda is a very fictional, de-WASPed version of literary titan and one-time Intellivision pitchman George Plimpton, the guy who gave the author of Maniac Magee key contacts in the publishing industry. Physically, Plimpton and Alda are very much the same, from their lanky physiques to their premature grayness. This was Alda's first major role in a movie, but his Alda-ness—the capacity to be both a smartass and a sensitive, caring Man of the 1970s—shines through as clearly as the tiny gray hairs that were already starting to show in his early thirties.
The Detroit Lions play themselves in Paper Lion, although the four years between Plimpton's experiment and the filming of its silver-screen adaptation make for two very different but equally mediocre teams. Joe Schmidt, the veteran leader of the Lions defense in 1963, was starting his first season as Detroit's head coach in 1967. Alex Karras was suspended from football when Plimpton was in camp due to gambling and alleged mob ties, but he makes his movie debut with the team four years later, regaling Alda with the exact bawdy past-life experiences with Hitler that Plimpton had recounted being told in his book. Roger Brown was traded within a week of when the climactic game was filmed, which is mentioned in the movie; he joined the Los Angeles Rams as one of the Fearsome Foursome. Lem Barney and the late Mel Farr were not around to camp with George Plimpton but also are present here. They would later go on to play a key role in Marvin Gaye's tryout with the Lions in 1970.
The film adaptation of Paper Lion plays loose with a lot of the details, but is fairly faithful to the spirit of the book. Cameos from Frank Gifford and Vince Lombardi serve to show Plimpton reaching out to the powers that be without having to dramatize the trickier-to-film moments of the book—telephone tag between the author and the New York Titans, say, or an embarrassing moment involving ice hockey, the owner of the Baltimore Colts, and a pregnant Ethel Kennedy. Plimpton's real-life boxing exhibition with Archie Moore is changed to one with Sugar Ray Robinson in the movie, and a scene in which Plimpton throws a ball to a young kid, who runs away and steals it, was based on something that happened to Earl Morrall, the greatest non-Plimpton backup QB of all-time.
The 1967 Detroit Lions are as much the star of Paper Lion as Alan Alda, and do the best they can playing pranks on the actor, awkwardly singing their schools' fight songs, and making sure the future Hawkeye Pierce doesn't get maimed. The filmmakers must have thought a feminine presence was needed, so Lauren Hutton is brought along to take a few snapshots, indulge in a second-unit montage catching a plane at JFK, and try to prove that Alda is more masculine than at first glance. David Doyle, the future Bosley from Charlie's Angels, drops in to give Alda a few suggestions on his next project. An uncredited but definitely recognizable Roy Scheider shows up to play a little touch football in the beginning.
The climactic preseason game—words this author never imagined he would type—is pure fantasy, in that George Plimpton was barred by the No Fun League from actually participating in a preseason game; he had to settle for action in a scrimmage and an appearance at the following year's draft on Detroit's behalf. Less than five years later, though, Pete Rozelle must have had a change of heart, or at least was convinced that Alan Alda was below George Plimpton's replacement value to the American cultural milieu. The in-game footage is classic early NFL Films work—Steve Sabol and NFL Films are in fact credited for these scenes—and give the movie a layer of authenticity that would have been impossible at the start of the decade. There's also a scene in which one of the Lions linemen audibly yells, "Fucking A", which is not a first but certainly an outlier in the more family friendly 1960s. The in-game footage pads out the movie's third act, and offsets much of the fun of seeing Alda lose 41 yards and hit a goalpost while running out the clock. If only this film was made after taking a knee became a thing.
For a movie ostensibly about a football team in Detroit, there is almost no sign of the city. It may or may not have been coincidence that Paper Lion's training camp scenes were filmed in Florida rather than the suburban Michigan locale of the book, or that the final game was filmed at Busch Stadium II instead of at Tiger Stadium. That said, the Detroit race riots of July 1967 exacerbated lingering racial tensions and accelerated both white flight and the horribly depressing decline of the city. Paper Lion dances around this context with the same blinkered determination that the Lions franchise has shown in dancing around success over the last half-century.
Paper Lion is a Swingin' 60s look at the National Football League, both in tone and in aesthetic. As we lose more and more of those who played in the NFL before its merger with the AFL, Paper Lion, the movie and the book, gives us insight into a game that was about to enter a period of exponential growth, much of which came at the expense of those who played it. And while Paper Lion the film is in many ways as dated as the Munsingwear half the team wears off the field, it's not just watchable but enjoyable as more than a historical document. Any movie that has both Vince Lombardi and Alan Alda has some value in this world, and for all that it could have been, Paper Lion is that movie.
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