Football on Film: Paper Lion (1968)

In honor of Super Bowl Week, Fantes Inferno is highlighting the sport of professional football on film.

Paper Lion

Paper Lion Movie Poster

Release Date: October 23, 1968

Directed by Alex March; Screenplay by Lawrence Roman based on the novel Paper Lion by George Plimpton

Starring: Alan Alda, Lauren Hutton, Alex Karras, John Gordy, Joe Schmidt, Mike Lucci, Pat Studstill, Roger Brown

One of my favorite parts of the NFL season is training camp.  Every July brings a sense of optimism as draft picks and free agents arrive to camp to compete with returning veterans for a spot on 53 man the roster.  Sadly, my team rarely makes it to the playoffs, so training camp usually ends up being the only positive part of my season.  But it’s the time of year in which the fans of pro football can evaluate the talent on their team going into the season, and see the level of competition and talent it takes to make it in the NFL.

Paper Lion is the football film that speaks to the Average Joe who dreams of lacing up a pair of cleats and playing for their favorite NFL team.  In the film, writer George Plimpton, on assignment for Sports Illustrated, seeks a tryout as a quarterback with an NFL team.  His goal is to chronicle his progress through training camp with the ultimate goal of playing a series in a pre-season game.  After rejections by several NFL teams, the Detroit Lions give him an opportunity to compete for the third string quarterback position on the condition that he doesn’t reveal to the team that he is a writer.  He has even created a backstory that he played quarterback for a semi-pro football team in Canada called the Newfoundland Newfs.

Soon enough, Plimpton’s secret is revealed and a group of veteran players led by Alex Karras and John Gordy make subtle and not so subtle attempts to get George to quit.  To them, an Average Joe in his late 30s trying out for a professional team would make a mockery of what they do for a living, and Plimpton’s inexperience playing football could potentially expose them to injury.  In spite of their attempts, George perseveres and not only makes progress at the position, but wins over his teammates over the course of training camp.

The film is based on George Plimpton’s 1966 non-fiction book of the same title but there are a few notable differences.  In the book Plimpton gets a tryout with the 1963 Detroit Lions, but in the film Plimpton (played by Alan Alda) tries out with the 1968 team.  Joe Schmidt  was a linebacker for the 1963 Lions in the book, but by 1968 he was the head coach of the team.  Defensive lineman Alex Karras was not part of the 1963 team due to a suspension by the NFL for gambling, but was back on the squad in 1968 and a prominent figure in the film.

Director Alex March also drafted members of the Lions roster to play themselves in the film, including receiver Pat Studstill, linebacker John Lucci, and Hall of Fame cornerback Lem Barney, and was able to get admirable performances out of them despite their lack of acting training.  There are several other notable cameos in the film, particularly NY Giants great Frank Gifford and legendary Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi, who takes a swipe at the AFL when he insinuates Plimpton might have an easier time trying out for one of their teams.

Paper Lion is by no means a documentary, but director March gives it that feel with effective use of the training camp sequences that give the audience the opportunity to experience the drills, hits and repetition of training camp from a player’s point of view.  But he also shows the camaraderie and teamwork from the daily drills and team meals to the pranks and rookie talent show.  It’s a more sanitized version of professional football compared to North Dallas Forty, but this subtle comedy, highlighted by Alan Alda’s performance as Plimpton, is fun to watch and makes you root for (and laugh with) the underdog.

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