Johnny Knoxville Brings Evel Knievel Back

Credit: Corbis / Courtesy of Sundance Institute

As the X-Games wrap up in Aspen, Colorado, one documentary here in Park City explores the spiritual beginnings of the now insatiable drive to go big. Being Evel, which premiered this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival offers a nuanced portrait of the daredevil, Robert "Craig" Knievel, a.k.a. "Evel Knievel". The latest project from director Donald Junge, the film charts the life of the complicated man on the motorcycle. The town punk from Butte, Montana, grew into the man who hustled his way into a death-defying jump at Caesar's Palace, and would eventually attempt to jump the mile-wide Snake River canon in a rocket. Producer Johnny Knoxville, who narrates the film, still counts Knievel as a hero. We spoke with Knoxville, about his life-long love of Evel, how the daredevil has shaped Knoxville's career, and why he credits Evel with inventing action sports. 

What surprised you the most about Evel?
I learned so many things researching this documentary and during the interviews. I was just fascinated by his life before he started jumping. How fiercely intelligent he was, and charismatic, and what a hustler he was. He ran a little racket in Butte, Montana where he'd go to your bar and he'd go, "Give me some money, and I'll watch your bar, make sure it's not robbed," and if you didn't give him money, your bar was going to be robbed.

How did Evel inspire you over the years?

When I was a kid there was no bigger star in America. To me and a lot of my friends, it was Elvis Presley, Muhammad Ali, and Evel Knievel, that's how big he was. He invented going that big. No one went that big before him. He was a superhero to me. He still is. I know about his life and how he was in certain areas in his life, and quite a few of the things are disappointing, but he was a real live superhero.

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How did that manifest for you as a kid? 
I think it led to magical thinking. He dreamed so big, and would do it. In some of the stunts that I've tried before, I know right before: this could be forever bad. And I've had some really bad accidents, but I think I slide into the magical thinking of 'I've got this, it's going to be fine, it's going to hurt, it's going to be fine.' It's all about managing your fear. A lot of people get scared and stop. But you overcome it. Otherwise, we've got no footage.

The film argues he launched the world of action sports.
One hundred percent — when you watch the X-Games now, they are going for it in such a way, where their lives are on the line. No one went huge like that before Evel Knievel. That all came from him. The spirit of the X games started with Evel. There were some daredevils before him, Earl "Lucky" Teter, or Joey Chitwood, they were doing death-defying things too, but they were in a car or in a cage. But this man is on a motorcycle with no cage, and no protection.

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How do you understand Evel's relationship with fear?
I think he suppressed his fear. He would never admit to being scared, and I think it came out sideways a lot. When you suppress anything it has to get out. I think a lot came out sideways at Snake River. He was looking at almost certain death. 

You interview Tony Hawk in the film, Matt Hoffman, Seth Enslow, Travis Pastrana, Robbie Maddison. How did he directly influence them?
Just I think he captured their imagination too. Travis said in the doc, he was trying do a big motorcycle jump and he was like, 'I'm going to do this and be just like Evel Knievel but not as good,' and Travis Pastrana is the best in the world at what he does, but he's still that little kid that looks up to Evel Knievel.

Do you think Evel gets that credit for launching action sports?
No, I don't think so. I hope this documentary will help everyone realize that but it started with Evel — every time out everything was on the line. There were a lot of people after Evel that did what he did, but they weren't salesmen like Evel. They weren't showmen, they weren't handsome, they weren't whip smart. He was the entire package. 

How does he still influence your life today?

That spirit that he had, the positive aspects of Evel, I try to pick and choose what characteristics you like in people, but when it came to stunts, if he said he was going to do something, he did it. He never backed down. Stunt-wise, if I've said I was going to do it, I was going to do it.