“Being Evel,” a new documentary about Butte’s most infamous son, works hard to capture Evel Knievel as he really was—a monumental daredevil and self-promoter who could also be a selfish jerk.
The film presents abundant evidence for his having been a jerk. There’s talk about his pursuit of lowlife crime as a young man, and footage of a surly Knievel cursing at the press corps before his big jump over the Snake River Canyon.
There is Knievel bragging about his relentless womanizing, despite his decades-long marriage to the former Linda Bork, and Knievel talking unapologetically about attacking his one-time promoter with a baseball bat.
And yet, when the 102-minute documentary ends, what lingers is a sense of the comic-book extravagance of his one-of-a-kind life, of a striver who invented not only himself but a whole new genre of sports and entertainment.
One of the producers of the film was Johnny Knoxville, of “Jackass” fame, who apparently idolized Knievel but then made a mockery of dare-deviltry, transforming it from a near-mythic assertion of individuality to a collection of frat-boy stunts filmed with a hand-held camera. But Knoxville, who is one of many fans and friends of Knievel’s interviewed for the documentary, is right about Knievel’s place in American history.
He called Knievel a “superhero,” the man who singlehandedly invented extreme sports. “That’s such a large part of our culture now,” Knoxville says. “He inspired all that.”
Knoxville also delivers a succinct, memorable description of Knievel’s career: “It’s a crazy story. It’s just fast, faster, disaster.”
Knievel movie opens Friday at downtown theater
Thanks to the latest theater to open in Billings, Art House Cinema & Pub, locals will be among a small group of people able to watch “Being Evel” when it premieres Friday night.
Ryan Kabeary, manager of the independent theater at 109 N. 30th St., said “Being Evel” will open Friday at just 15 theaters in the United States and one in Toronto, Canada.
Here are show times for the movie at Art House Cinema:
This week: Friday, 6 and 8:15 p.m.; Saturday, 1:30, 6 and 8:15 p.m.; Sunday, 12:30 p.m..
Next week: Wednesday, 6 and 8:15 p.m.; Thursday, no showings (Alive After 5, sponsored by Pug Mahon’s, will be on North 30th outside the theater); Friday, 6:15 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 6:15 p.m..
Final shows: Sunday, Aug. 30, 3 p.m.; Wednesday, Sept. 2, 6:15 p.m.; Thursday Sept. 3, 6:15 p.m.
Some other famous people do filmed interviews in this movie, including George Hamilton, who portrayed Knievel in a feature film; Frank Gifford, from “Wide World of Sports”; Geraldo Rivera, the newsman who was nearly as good at self-promotion as Knievel; and Tony Hawk, the former professional skateboarder.
But we also hear from some great Butte characters, including Jim Blankenship, Jim Lynch, Bob Rowling, Ray Gunn, Bill Rundle, Bob Kovasich, Mark Lisac and Knievel’s sons, Robbie and Kelly. A fairly large part is played by former Knievel bodyguard (and now a resident of Billings) Gene “Jump for Jesus” Sullivan.
Some of the best commentary is provided by Knievel’s cousin, Pat Williams, and longtime friend, Bob Pavlovich. Though they are not further identified, Williams, of course, is the former U.S. representative from Montana, and Pavlovich is the former Montana House member and owner of the Met Tavern, one of Knievel’s favorite haunts.
Williams talks about being virtually a brother of Knievel’s when they were kids, and about how tough and bullheaded young Knievel was.
“You couldn’t dare him,” Williams says. “If you dared him, he’d do it.”
Pavlovich mentions, almost in passing, that Knievel once burglarized the Met, as if such a thing was to be expected, and easily forgiven.
I do wish the movie had a little more Butte in it. There is an attempt to explain Knievel’s crazy ambition as a result of having been abandoned by his parents and raised by his grandparents, but I think Butte itself could have had a lot to do with his outlandish persona. In a town so rich in characters, you had to work hard just to distinguish yourself on your home turf.
Possibly there was no explaining Knievel’s unprecedented career. His friend Ray Gunn, without offering any psychological explanations, had this to say in the film:
“He had some weird ideas about how life should be lived. And he thought that he should be at the top of the heap. That’s why he did the stuff he did.”
Maybe, like Alexander the Great, he simply had an itch to conquer the world. He did nothing by half-measures. He started a hockey team, the Butte Bombers, and not only persuaded the Czech national team to come play them in Butte, but then stole the proceeds without paying the Czechs a dime.
He tried selling insurance and did extravagantly well (though his success included signing up patients at the state mental hospital), but quit when told he could never make vice president of the company. He took Linda and his three kids to Washington state, where he sold Honda motorcycles, and where he staged his first motorcycle jump as a promotional shtick.
The event didn’t go quite as planned. Knievel was supposed to jump over some caged cougars and rattlesnakes, but came up short and tipped over the tank of snakes, sending the crowd fleeing in terror. This would set the pattern for the rest of his life: successful jumps were interesting, but disasters made him famous.
There are slow-motion clips of Knievel’s many falls, including the one from his attempt to jump over the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in 1967. It’s painful to watch, but it gave Knievel his first big break. As George Hamilton said, “That’s one of the great pieces of footage of all time.”
On a related note, Hamilton said he himself delivered an Oscar-worthy script-reading when he visited Knievel to talk about his projected bio-pic. “He’s lying there like a pasha in a bad motel,” Hamilton said. “And that’s when it all got crazy.”
After drinking half a bottle of Wild Turkey, Knievel asked Hamilton to read him the script. When Hamilton demurred, Knievel pulled out a pistol, held it to Hamilton’s head and asked him again. Hey, you wanna be Evel in a movie, you play by his rules.
I kept thinking of all the things the movie left out, but I also learned so much about periods of his life I was unaware of, or new details of some of his better-known capers. The story of the Snake River jump deserves a movie of its own, complete with the terrorization of the Butte High School marching band by gangs of drunk, drugged-up, sex-crazed bikers.
We also learn that out of the top 10 shows broadcast in the 37-year run of “Wide World of Sports,” Evel was the star of seven. He made his first real fortune not from stunt-jumping per se, but from the sale of Evel Knievel action figures sold by the Ideal Toy Corp. One observer said Knievel “invented the licensing business.”
And he was the motorcyclist in white leather, not black, the self-branded “good guy” who urged kids to stay off drugs and always wear their helmets. Booze, broads and insane stunts apparently were OK. It was another instance of Knievel’s conception of himself winning out over reality.
His heyday coincided with some ugly times, with violent fights over civil rights, the Vietnam War and the meltdown of the Nixon administration.
“We were a little down on ourselves,” Pat Williams says, “and along comes this kid from Butte, Montana, who showed us who we were and wanted to be again.”
You can believe that, and you can believe it when Johnny Knoxville and Tony Hawk speak in worshipful tones about the man who created jobs for thousands of crazy kids riding skateboards, dirt bikes and snowboards.
But you can’t quite escape the sadness at the core of the movie, in the person of Linda, Knievel’s first wife. She gives Knievel his due and says nothing downright bad about him, but with her strained voice, her hesitation and the tears always welling up in her eyes, she doesn’t need to.
“He was OK before he became Evel Knievel,” she says at one point. And after others testify about how Knievel, after his late-life conversion at the hands of a famous televangelist, tried to make amends with many of the people he wronged, Linda says simply, “Well, first time I ever heard him say ‘I’m sorry,’ he was pretty much on his death bed.”
Click here to watch a trailer for “Being Evel.”
Editor’s note: Purely by coincidence, former Gazette colleague Jim Hagengruber posted this photo on his Facebook page Tuesday night. It was taken at a meeting of the Butte Press Club at the Knights of Columbus Hall in 2001. I couldn’t resist publishing it here. Also, I have no recollection of why I was making that face.