Boys who grew up in the '70s could be divided into two groups: those who wanted to be superheroes and those who wanted to be Evel Knievel—the most badass stuntman they’d ever laid eyes on. Actor Johnny Knoxville had a foot in both camps. "I didn’t think of him as a daredevil. I thought of him as a superhero,” says the "Jackass" star in the new documentary about Evel Knievel, “Being Evel,” which premiers at Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 25.
The stuntman who laid the groundwork for what would become the action-sports ethos came from humble beginnings. Born Robert Craig Knievel in Butte, Montana, in 1938, the baby of the Great Depression attended a Joie Chitwood Auto Daredevil Show at the age of 8 and later acknowledged that this was what planted the daredevil seed, which didn’t bloom for another 18 years.
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Before becoming a stuntman in 1966, Knievel was an outlaw and flimflam man whose all-around athleticism was Shaun Palmer–esque. And he probably stuffed more life into the decade between his teens and 20s than most do in a lifetime: Knievel dropped out of high school during sophomore year; was fired for wheelie-ing a front-end loader into a power line; competed as a ski jumper and rodeo guy; joined the Army; started a semi-pro hockey team; almost caused an international incident when receipts from a game between his team and the Czechoslovakian team were stolen before the visiting team was paid, started a fishing and hunting guide service that often hunted in Yellowstone National Park (yeah, totally illegal); successfully led a grassroots campaign to have elk relocated to areas where hunting was permitted; raced motocross; sold insurance; and opened a motorcycle shop.
“If you wrote the life of Evel Knievel as a fiction, no one would believe it,” the director of "Being Evel," Daniel Junge, told Sundance in the video above.
Knievel attempted more than 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps between 1965 and 1980. During the course of his career, he suffered more than 433 fractures, which sent him skidding ass-over-tea-kettle into the Guinness Book of World Records for surviving "the most bones broken in a lifetime.”
“No one ever went for it like that before. He invented that. Since then it has taken off in a major way,” says Knoxville in the film. “That’s such a large part of our culture now. He inspired that. But there will never be another Evel.”
A consummate businessman and marketer, his relentless marketing of himself makes Gene Simmons look like a humble entrepreneur. From toys to replica helmets, Knievel lent his name to some of the coolest toys in the world, including the Stunt Cycle, a gyro-powered motorcycle that came with two ramps and would bring most boys from the '70s to their knees.
But Knievel also had plenty of demons: the book "Evel Knievel on Tour," written by one of Knievel’s promoters, alleged the daredevil abused his wife and kids. Knievel attacked the promoter/author with an aluminum bat. The author ended up in the hospital and needed multiple surgeries. Knievel ended up in jail.
“This man was a childhood hero of mine and yet I’ve always had a certain amount of ambivalence about him after I learned he assaulted his promoter and that really precipitated his fall from grace. Our intention was to present the man with unflinching honesty, warts and all, but also celebrate what he’s done for our culture,” Junge said to the Sundance Institute.
Knoxville helped produce "Being Evel" and he makes no broken bones about being indebted to the Butte native. “[Evel’s] spirit hangs over 'Jackass' and inspired all of us,” said Knoxville during an interview with Entertainment Weekly, “and we teamed up with Mat Hoffman, who's our generation's Evel Knievel and who has a friendship with the Knievel family. So we all did this together out of our love for Evel. The doc focuses on all of his immense accomplishments, but also what his life has spawned. You know, there would not be an X Games without Evel.”
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