In the span of seven years, daredevil stunt cyclist Evel Knievel — the subject of the History Channel doc Being Evel, opening Friday at the Digital Gym — became one of the most recognizable figures, action or otherwise, on the planet.
Knievel’s was a life of constant reinvention, an inner-crusade of never-ending one-upmanship with but one goal in sight: hurdling, with cannonball force, over anything and everything spread before him. If you’re gonna be dumb you gotta be tough. Initially, the biggest obstacle was figuring a way to lure crowds to a sport no one had ever heard of. (The filmmakers credit Knievel’s exploits with paving the way for Motocross and extreme sports in general.)
The first jump, in 1965, was over a 20-foot box that played host to several rattlesnakes, butted against an equally large enclosure containing a pair of mountain lions. Injury sustained: a sprained ankle. It would mark the first of many fractures that would eventually place Knievel atop the Guinness Book of World Records list of “most bones broken in a lifetime.”
A man of humble origins, Knievel was raised in the “tough-ass” mining town of Butte, Montana, where he quickly matured into a con man, a racketeer big on accepting dares. Time spent as an insurance salesman is almost as fabled as his breakneck stunts. He set a record, writing 271 policies — all to patients at a local mental hospital — in one week.
A born scam artist redrawn to play the part of a Hells Angel in white, the self-appointed caped crusader elevated the business of character licensing into an ideal deal with Ideal Toys. There were board games, lunch pails, action figures, pinball machines, Marvel comics, Halloween costumes, a Scramble Van, and the pièce de résistance, the wind-up Stunt Cycle.
The allure of an arrogant, humorless thrill-seeker who made a living sailing motorcycles over trucks will forever evade me, but when it comes to paraphernalia, there was never a need to brush up on my Knievel. The encyclopedic knowledge came part and parcel when working the counter of a Chicago collectibles store where Pearl Jam frontman and Evel die-hard Eddie Vedder made frequent visits in search of Knollectibles. Who knows what Evel lurks in the heart of collectors? I do!
It didn’t take long for Hollywood to smell money. Star of Evel Knievel George Hamilton remembers being forced at gunpoint to read aloud John Milius’s script to a wasted Knievel. (The memories couldn’t have been that traumatic; Hamilton acted as executive producer on Being Evel.) The biopic’s a lot more entertaining than memory served, but then as now, attempts to paint the legendized Knievel as anything more than a poor-man’s Keaton minus the artistry brought instant laughter.
Viva Knievel!, starring you-know-who in the lead, is as pious a slice of character-embellishing bioslop as The Babe Ruth Story. When not covering Evel’s numerous visits to orphanages, the plot involves Leslie Nielsen as a gangster who intends to use Knievel’s coffin (replete with corpse) to smuggle cocaine across the Mexican border. In a career low point, Gene Kelly (yes, that Gene Kelly) co-stars (at gunpoint?) as an alcoholic mechanic with an estranged grandson in tow. I (over)paid $3 for a DVD copy at Big Lots.
“He’s probably the only man in history who became very wealthy trying to kill himself,” quipped Johnny Carson during one of his many Tonight Show intros to Evel. If the names Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd skipped Johnny’s mind, it’s probably because, unlike those two risk-taking titans, our stone-faced warrior was far from a thrill jockey where comedy was concerned. The only humor Knievel carried with him was on his back. Clearly he, Elvis, and Liberace all consulted the same needle worker.
There was a time when even failure brought enormous success. After the Snake River Canyon fiasco, the writers of The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast gifted roaster Sen. Barry Goldwater with the gem, “He didn’t clear the canyon; he did clear some $3 million.” (Isabel Sanford, “Weezy” on TV’s The Jeffersons, placed a close second with, “He’s broken more ribs than I’ve eaten!”)
To his credit, the one part of him that Knievel never broke was character, and Being Evel houses at least one evilly unintentional chortle that sheds light on the glorified stuntman’s vaulted feelings of self-regard. Following Johhny’s baptismal lead-in, Evel took to the stage, where a robotic Ed McMahon, programmed to greet each celebrity with a handshake, was instead treated like a valet when handed his guest’s walking stick and full-length fur coat.
Being Evel raced across the screen. The memory-jarring clips were exhaustively researched. With a movie screen to their backs, friends, family members, and fans of the anti–Hell’s Angel reminisce about the volatile subject. (The confrontation between the hardcore biker gang and Knievel’s core fans was a fascinating piece of time to relive.) No surprise, the film is hosted and co-produced by heir apparent, Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame. It’s Knoxville’s job to gloss over some of the not-so-nice aspects of our hero’s personality. We’re here to praise Evel; print the legend.
Private life notwithstanding, the modern-day gladiator was never publicly turned into lion food. After one last successful jump — and with the old showbiz adage about always leaving audiences wanting more illuminating his mind — Evel put the Americana jumpsuit out to pasture. “Nobody wants to see me die,” Evel once confided to a friend, “but they don’t want to miss it if I do.”
Director Daniel Junge should have learned from his mentor’s “It doesn’t take brains to take risks” philosophy instead of playing it safe when erring on the side of legend-building. Before Mr. T and Steven Seagal, there was Evel Knievel. For those who remember these simple, simpler-minded times, Being Evel is a sure bet.