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How Johnny Knoxville Broke His Manhood Paying Homage to Evel Knievel

How Johnny Knoxville Broke His Manhood Paying Homage to Evel Knievel:

Before he was known to the world as Johnny Knoxville, star of MTV reality stunt comedy show Jackass, Phillip John “PJ” Clapp Jr. grew up watching the white leather-clad, American flag-waving Robert C. “Evel” Knievel performing miracles on his star-spangled Harley Davidson. Now, Knievel is the subject of a riveting new documentary, Being Evel, now in theaters nationwide and available on video on demand after a successful premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

It turns out Knievel was as entertaining off-camera as he was on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. For anyone who grew up in the ‘70s — like 44-year-old Knoxville did, which is a big reason why he produced the documentary — Knievel was a larger-than-life figure who paved the way for extreme sports from skateboarding to BMX riding to motorcycle racing, which is why everyone from Tony Hawk to Mat Hoffman is featured in this doc.

But the stuntman also inspired Knoxville and his gang of Jackass daredevils like Steve-O, Bam Margera, Chris Pontius, and director Jeff Tremaine, who also produced Being Evel. Knoxville talks about his childhood superhero, and explains why his worst injury ever — a severely injured penis — is all because of Evel Knievel.


How did Evel Knievel impact your life?
He was a huge influence. There was no bigger figure growing up, in my mind, than Evel Knievel. There was no one, in my mind, bigger in the ‘70s. You have people on the same level like Muhammad Ali or Elvis, but Evel was just as big as them, and his spirit and his way of thinking …the way he went for it, and always kept his word when he was going for it. If he said he was going to do something, he did it. That really sunk in for me. I’m not sure that there would be a Jackass without Evel Knievel.

What was your favorite stunt that he did?
His stunts were unbelievable, but he was such a salesman and a showman with such charisma. He was the total package. He could talk anyone into anything. An example of how sharp he was is that during the height of the Cold War, he convinced the Czechoslovakian National Team… Let me back up. He had started a semi-pro hockey team at the age of 19, in Butte, Montana called the Butte City Bombers, and he convinced the Czechoslovakian National Team to come to Butte to play his Bombers, and they came.

The Czechs killed them 22-3. He went on the ice, he was very respectful, between each period, and said, “Hey, the Czechoslovakian team’s travel bill was a little larger than we had anticipated, can you please pass the hat around and make their stay up here freezing in Butte as comfortable as possible?” Something like that. And when he left the ice in the third period, somehow that hat of money disappeared, and also, somehow, all the proceeds from the game disappeared out of the safe. Now, we still don’t know who took them, but the U.S. Olympic Committee had to go into Butte to help get the Czechoslovakian team out of there, because they had no money. With stories like that you could have done a whole documentary on him before he was 20.

Did you feel that you guys were a modern variation of what Evel did back in his heyday?
No, I don’t think any of us think that highly of ourselves to think we’re a modern version of Evel. He inspired us, and we kind of looked at what he did and said, “People basically came to watch him not land his jump,” so we designed our stunts like that: “Let’s not land anything. Let’s just make everything fail!”

What are the worst injuries you sustained on Jackass?
I don’t know, man, there’s been a lot of breaks and sprains, concussions, but I don’t really know the top five because they’re all about the same — except for when I broke my pee-pee trying to back flip a motorcycle for the tribute we were doing to Evel Knievel in 2007. That was probably the number one worst.

What went wrong?
I was trying to back flip a motorcycle [up a dirt hill], but I don’t know how to ride a motorcycle. Travis Pastrana was letting the clutch out for me, that’s how bad I am on a motorcycle. I wasn’t ever going to land that, but I was trying. But I’m just so uncoordinated. It was a little out of my capabilities, which is what you want in a stuntman, that’s how you want him to conduct himself. You want a little overly optimistic stunt man who’s pushing it a little too far past his capabilities. [The motorcycle ended up going straight up and coming down squarely on Knoxville’s crotch.]

Are there any stunts you couldn’t believe you actually pulled off?
I’m not able to do any of these stunts. I never tried them before, so I don’t practice. I just try. I just rehearse on film, and if it ends like, “Wow, I can’t believe I did that,” that means I’m going to do it again till I can’t. Nobody wants to watch me make it. I don’t.

Do you think fans were rooting against Evel as well with his stunts?
People weren’t coming out to watch him succeed. People were coming out to watch him crash. He was jumping a few years before the disaster at Caesar’s Palace [in which he successfully jumped the fountains in front of the Las Vegas casino but missed the landing in 1967] really put him on the map, and he understood that. He wasn’t trying to fail, he was trying to succeed, but when you’re doing something like that, there’s going to be complications.

Especially when you don’t rehearse stunts.
Yeah, I think his only rehearsal was to take a shot of Wild Turkey and say, “You’ve got to feel it!” Evel didn’t do practice jumps until Kings Island, which was near the end of his career. Other than that, he just went for it.

Who do you feel carries on Evel’s stuntman spirit today?
Mat Hoffman carries on his spirit. Travis Pastrana, Robbie Maddison, and Seth Enslow, they all carry on his spirit, but it was just a different time. He was a perfect man for the perfect time. Today there’s so many different avenues and ways a person can get their information and entertainment, and back then there were three television stations. That’s it. When Evel was on Wide World of Sports on ABC, the whole country was transfixed. Of the Top 10 Wide World of Sports moments of all time, Evel owns seven of them.

He really came along at the right time, especially for our country, too, because we were having a terrible year in '68, with all that happened, and then Watergate, our national spirit was pretty drained by that time.

Evel Knievel seems ripe for a biopic. What’s taking Hollywood so long?
I think, yeah, definitely you could make a really great biopic around Evel’s life. You’ve just got to pick which stories to tell and what to emphasize, and I think there’s probably a couple in the works. We were more interested in doing a documentary on him, and telling the real story of Evel Knievel. Celebrating what he did, and what he inspired, but also being honest about the man he was.


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