Being Evel

Posted on August 27, 2015 at 5:13 pm

Evel Knievel was an international celebrity in the 1960’s-70’s, known for three things: showmanship, stunts that succeeded, and stunts that failed. He was recognized for jumping over 19 cars in his motorcycle, for crash-landing after trying to jump over the fountains of Caesars Palace, and holding the Guinness Book of World Records title for the most broken bones. He was an iconic figure in his white leather jumpsuits trimmed with stars and stripes. Over the 37 years that ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” seven of the top ten rated episodes, including the most-watched of all time, featured Knievel.

He influenced and inspired a generation of daredevil kids, those who transformed his stunts into a whole new category of amateur and professional competition called extreme sports (“having a high level of inherent danger”). And he inspired a lot of idiotic behavior from people like Johnny Knoxville, who made a career out of doing stupid stuff on television and getting hurt, and who has now made a documentary about the man he says he thought of not as a daredevil but as a superhero. He was a star for what he dared to do but he was a bigger star for staying with it even when he failed. “Fast, faster, and disaster,” says Knoxville, but, as the film makes clear, “He captured my imagination like nobody else.”

Knoxville warns us up front that Knievel was not entirely admirable. And, as a friend comments in the film, his career followed the same arc as his famous “Skycycle” stunt, when he attempted to ride what was essentially a small rocket across a canyon. What went up, came down, eventually, in a spectacular crash.

This portrait, co-produced by George Hamilton, who played Evel in a 1971 film, is frank but sympathetic, with archival footage and interviews with Knievel’s friends, family, and fans.

Robert Craig Knievel was born in Butte, Montana in 1938, where he was raised by his grandparents. He was close to his first cousin, Pat Williams, elected to Congress nine times. In the 1940’s, Butte was a town of coal miners and prostitutes, where disputes were settled by fistfight and no one took a misdemeanor like petty theft personally. When a cop referred to him as “Evil” Knievel, Robert adopted the name, changing the i to an e, to make it “less evil.”

Knievel married a girl from Butte (she admits that he sort of kidnapped her, but she did not seem to mind) and they had three children. He sold insurance for a while, getting mental patients to sign up for policies to set a sales record and then he sold motorcycles. To promote the motorcycles, he started doing stunts. And then he kept doing stunts to promote himself. “How do you convince people to come to a sport they never heard of?” Evel knew how to tell a good story. We see him on talk shows, and later, after the Hamilton film, we see him spouting some of the dialogue written for his character. He didn’t like the film, but he knew a good line when he heard it. “He created the character and then tried to live the part,” says one of his friends.

He was a showman and a salesman. He had sponsors and licensing agreements. The Ideal action figure was one of the most popular toys of the era. He made a fortune and he spent it — planes, boats, jewelry. His enormous safe had a gold-plated motorcycle covered with cash.

This all happened during the 70’s. Knievel’s star-spangled stunts were a welcome distraction from the corruption and disappointment of the Watergate era. But Knievel was less successful at clearing his own distractions. All those injuries meant painkillers. That might have been a factor in his brutal attack on a former colleague, which ended in a guilty plea, a jail sentence, and the cancellation of lucrative endorsements and licensing deals. All those fans meant lots of girls. His wife left him. His health was shot; he had a liver transplant, a hip replacement, a spine fusion. His money was gone. Perhaps most difficult for him, his audience was gone.

Knoxville is an unabashed fan, but he is honest about Knievel’s failings. The movie has some unexpected revelations and telling details, but audiences are unlikely to agree that inspiring a generation of kids to risk their lives in crazy stunts is especially admirable. Knievel’s legacy, for better and worse, is more clearly tied to marketing and celebrity than to courage or integrity. The problem with making a reputation for stunts is that eventually, you crash and burn.

Parents should know that this movie includes a lot of preposterously risky behavior and injuries, references to sex, including sex with groupies and the effects of strong pharmaceuticals, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Who is most like Evel Knievel today? What was his most important influence?

If you like this, try: “Senna” and “Dogtown and Z-Boys”

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