Originally appeared in The Smart Set.
He was the patron saint of the amateur. By pretending to be George Plimpton in Mozambique, could I become him?
Is the world a stale and weary place, now that George Plimpton (1927-2003) is no longer in it? Hardly. But if it still seems fresh with possibility, Plimpton deserves his share of credit for making it so. His legacy is the magazine he edited — The Paris Review — but he is known best for his larks: quarterbacking the Detroit Lions, playing the triangle in Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic, boxing against Sugar Ray Robinson, tending goal for the Bruins, playing piano at an Apollo talent show. (He won second prize, narrowly edging out a guy who played a watering can.) He appeared in so many films that they called him “the Prince of Cameos.” In a way, the denial phase in grieving Plimpton’s death is prolonged by the suspicion that he’s secretly just on temporary assignment in the afterlife, having secured unprecedented permission to harvest souls for a few years as an understudy to the Grim Reaper. But even assuming that his passing is permanent, his example is sweet consolation, for it suggests that the universe — being merciful — has a place for incorrigible dilettantes.
This incorrigible dilettante spent months in Mozambique in the middle of 2001, writing a travel guide to the country. Plimpton had, in a way, prompted my exile. I met him once, when he was the dinner entertainment at a formal event at Harvard University in 2000. Our conversation didn’t last long — it was cut short by Tommy Lee Jones, even gruffer in person than on screen — and produced no anecdote worth remembering, other than the simple thrill of a handshake with a legend. But it did lead to the realization that I had to get out of the country if I wanted Plimptonian hijinks: I would not find it among crusty old Harvard men.
And, as I hoped, in Mozambique the hijinks found me, although they took a couple of weeks to reach anything near Plimptonian levels. I flew into Maputo and looked out the airplane window onto a vast barrio of shacks with tin roofs and flour sacks strung up on sticks for shade and color. The country had mostly recovered from its civil war. Red signs still marked minefields all over the countryside, but just a few years ago they had been marked with corpses, so it was an improvement. By 2001, the government was semi-enlightened: President Joaquim Chissano had fought hard to keep the peace, and if provoked would fight again. He had recently stated his admiration for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the ’60s icon whose dopey followers go into mind-expanding trances in the service of love and understanding. A chief executive who rhapsodizes about yogic flying is, among war-torn African nations, considerably better than par.
But signs of the disorder remained in the ramshackle neighborhoods and fantastically corrupt police, who demanded bribes from me at least twice a day. “Os documentos,” they’d say, then “meticais” — the Mozambican currency — to tell me that they wanted a few bills to return my passport after they inspected it. Once, when I walked by the presidential residence, I heard a hum from the bushes. I thought: Could it be President Chissano repeating his mantra? It turned out to be a skittish guard pointing an AK-47 at me and warning nonverbally to get away from the president’s house before he had to use deadly force. So there were still improvements to be made.
Two weeks into my stay, I was wilting somewhat from the hot weather, constant police annoyance, and stress of scouting every hotel and restaurant in Maputo. Late in the afternoon, a white car pulled up by me on Mao Tse Tung Avenue. The driver, a white American, asked if I would appear in a movie — a big Hollywood movie, starring Will Smith — in exchange for $20 and a hot meal. Sure, I said, before jumping in her car and enjoying the first air-conditioning I had felt in days.
Within hours, I was in the back of a pick-up with four other white-looking vagrants and heading to Machava Stadium, the largest in Mozambique. It was a few kilometers from the city center, far from the population centers, so the bright kliegs of the set made the stadium an unlikely sight as night fell — an extreme-candlepower spotlight pointing up to the heavens in a country where regular electric service hadn’t arrived till just a few years before.
The film was Ali, a biopic of Muhammad Ali. Machava Stadium stood in for the 20th of May stadium in Kinshasa, Zaire, site of 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle,” one of the greatest bouts in the history of boxing. The fight, in which Ali knocked out George Foreman in eight rounds, drew vast attention, partly because Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko had promoted it heavily and, to ensure nothing went wrong while foreign press was present, cranked up the already horrific levels of brutality in punishing criminals and opponents of his regime.
A remarkable documentary, When We Were Kings (1996), chronicled that fight. Viewers will recall that one of its most colorful interviews is none other than George Plimpton, who covered the fight ringside as a member of the press. In wardrobe, I met the American who was wrangling the extras and specially asked to be an extra in the press section, precisely where Plimpton had sat next to the novelist Norman Mailer. She demurred but didn’t seem to know what I was talking about, so I told her I resembled Plimpton — a shameless lie, since although Plimpton and I are relatively tall, he was a silver-haired, aristocratic, 40-something white guy, and I an unshaven half-Chinese man of only 21.
She wisely sensed an opportunity to decline an argument and said, “Whatever,” letting me sit among the press at ringside. In footage of the fight, Plimpton is visible only as a smudge in the background — the perfect place for him, I thought: not at the center of the action, but close enough to know the rhythms of the fight intimately, and to be able to report to the rest of us what Ali whispered to the furious Foreman, and how the sweat splattered when a fighter landed a blow. In the tapes of the fight, I could see Plimpton in the smudges, and I recalled the famous still photo of Plimpton and Mailer, slackjawed with awe at Foreman’s knockout, and positioned myself in Plimpton’s seat, in my first feature film, in a cameo as the Prince of Cameos.
Wardrobe dressed me in ’70s mufti, with bellbottoms and big lapels, and led me into a nearly empty Machava Stadium with a little boxing ring in the middle. I shivered on entering, both because the night was chilly and because the stadium spooked me. The extras — mostly Mozambican, and with a few whiteys like me — sat around the ring, but the seats in the rest of the stadium had been filled with two-dimensional fans, the same half-dozen disembodied torsos duplicated in cardboard and propped up thousands and thousands of times to make the place look full. At each of the four corners, the set designers had erected 50-foot canvas banners portraying a bespectacled Mobutu.
My faux press-corps colleagues hammered away at period typewriters, filling reams of paper with gibberish. The man next to me, unwittingly playing Norman Mailer, was a Namibian descendant of Germans who immigrated to Africa just before the Second World War. (I told him he was playing a diminutive New York Jew, and he did not take the news well.) The Mozambicans around me said that they had heard about the need for extras on the radio, and that they weren’t being paid, but that they had come to see Will Smith.
When Smith came out, looking as beefy as the boxer he portrayed, the crowd erupted in cheers. No one cheered Jon Voight, an even more convincing Howard Cosell. Charles Shufford, a superheavyweight professional fighter, played Foreman, and when the punches started, they looked awfully real, landing with painful thumps that for the first few minutes probably induced in my face the same awed expressions one sees on the actual Plimpton’s face in pictures.
But in time, after many cuts, the whole crowd grew tired and cold. Few of us had any sense at all of the mechanics of filmmaking. When the camera panned over us or showed us in the background of a fight scene, an assistant director harangued us in Portuguese in an effort to inspire enthusiasm befitting the first few rows at the greatest prizefight in history. “Mimica acção!” he yelled. “Mimic action,” that is — pretend to be excited, he explained at least a dozen times, but don’t actually yell, since 100 screaming fans would overwhelm the sounds the crews were trying to record in the ring. Every few minutes someone would get too excited and yell for real — jumping up and down and waving your arms in silence is somehow much more energy-sapping than jumping up and down and screaming at the same time. Once, the Namibian screamed something inappropriate in German, which seemed, on reflection, like something Norman Mailer might actually do.
When it became really cold, though, I slacked off and spent much of the night warming Plimpton’s chair and reading a Philip Roth novel that I had secreted away in my bellbottoms, just in case. By now it was 2:00 in the morning. The assistant director snapped at me a couple of times, and with some cause, since it’s almost certain that at the actual Rumble in the Jungle, there was no pale-faced fan at ringside quietly reading Sabbath’s Theater through rounds five to seven.
The night culminated around 3 a.m. with Ali’s victory and a simulation of the monsoon that hit moments afterward. The crews gathered the extras into a tight crown, and then poured cold water on us while we danced and cheered as Will Smith pumped his fist. As a reward, they said we no longer had to mimica, and unfeigned acção would be all right.
When shooting ended, Smith left the stadium in a hurry, and the Mozambicans murmured to each other, discontent at not having got at least a few minutes of direct address from the star. Jon Voight, in makeup and a bathrobe, shuffled past me and sensed the brooding unrest. “I think that’s it,” he said, uneasily, to no one in particular.
But the crowd wasn’t ready to go, and I sensed a brawl brewing — the consequence, I must say, of luring people into the cold African night, then spraying them with water. I retreated with my Roth to watch the unfolding drama among the cardboard fans in the nosebleed seats. A few people picked up chairs, perhaps wondering whether they could take them home, perhaps wondering if they should throw them. A couple others climbed to the top of the huge Mobutu pictures and started tearing them down. Would they be souvenirs? Would they find a practical use? I wondered whether when I flew out of Maputo, I would look down to see the shantytowns’ tin roofs replaced by waterproof likenesses of Mobutu Sese Seko. Smith eventually came back out and pacified the crowd with a ditty.
I arrived back at my hotel in time for the last hour of darkness. Trailers for Ali appeared a few months later, and I scoured them for my scenes. Eventually, I spotted myself in the rain in only the briefest of shots. Not all was lost, I thought: I had spent a night discovering the drudgery and joys of a movie set, I had met a dozen Mozambicans, and had watched the Fresh Prince quell an incipient riot by rapping on command. And although I’ve now seen the film twice, and have detected no more than a fleeting glimpse of my pale head in the corner of the screen, I’m content, as the master himself often was, with a supernumerary role, an amateur hour condensed into a fraction of a second. I’m a white blur, a smudge of Plimpton. • 11 June 2008
Graeme Wood is a staff editor at The Atlantic.