Being Evel
Cinema Culture History

Being Evel (dir. Daniel Junge, 2015)

Being Evel
Image courtesy of History Films.

“And I will never, ever ever jump again, I’m through.” — Evel Knievel, May 26, 1975

“But he is going to jump again!” — TV ad

First quote is Evel Knievel after crashing at Wembley in 1975; the second, a TV announcer in the commercial for his next jump—in Ohio, although I didn’t realize that at the time. At the time, which must have been late 1975, I just knew he was going to jump again and that sounded monumental. After Wembley he wanted to go out a winner, and though he only made the safety ramp on the other end of his late-1975 Ohio jump, that wasn’t a crash. And that was his out. He would jump a few times more but never strenuously. He stuck to oratory over confronting mortality. Of course, when he jumped seven buses at the Kingdome on Halloween 1976, he apologized to the assembled audience. He knew he was backing away from the brutal truth.

I was seven in ’75 (to borrow a line from the mighty Ellen Forney). I never had the Stunt Cycle. It was all over the TV commercials, but I had a Six Million Dollar Man doll. I tried to show it to my father once, how Steve Austin could lift the engine block with his bionic arm. He panicked. Then he breathed great gasps of relief as I pushed the button in Steve Austin’s back that moved the arm. “Oh, oh…I thought things were going to explode out all over the place.”

So much for sharing. So much for my father.

I saw the George Hamilton Evel Knievel movie in grade school, complete with yellow subtitles for the deaf kids. Especially useful for the scene where the criminal Robbie Knievel blows-up his way into a building to rob a bank (I think), only to exclaim (with bright yellow subtitles) “Shit! Wrong wall!”

Hamilton, in the new documentary Being Evel (opening this weekend at Sundance Cinemas), said Evel forced Hamilton to read the script to him at gunpoint. Hamilton also says that Evel professed to hate the film but jumped right on the speeches that co-writer John (Red Dawn, Apocalypse Now) Milius wrote for Hamilton, as Evel Knievel, to spew onscreen. Evel was on top of the world but he needed a speechwriter. He got Milius’ words for free.

Who was the star-spangled man with many plans? Depends on which timestream you apply. The old men who knew him in Butte, Montana, remember him as sweet kid their own age. They remember him as “Bob” or “Bobby.” The staffers at ABC’s Wild World Of Sports remember a showman who was learning fast even as he broke his ass every few months.

I mean that almost literally—he shattered his pelvis at least twice, including once at Wembley. He demanded to be hoisted to his feet as he delivered the farewell speech excerpted above. The bike landed on top of him for the grand finale of that crash. At Ceasar’s Palace, he just got run over by the back wheel a few rounds.

His ex-wife says he only said “I’m sorry” once, long after their split, as he was swiftly dying. And it was only those two words.

His sons sometimes tear up.

His daughter remembers that he could only confess how wrongheaded he’d been about a lot of things, but especially women, as he was about to pass. She thanked him for that.

The man in charge of running the Snake River Canyon jump said the situation became such an “anti-Woodstock” that he called in the National Guard. The National Guard said they couldn’t help. He was on his own.

Geraldo Rivera shows up and right away I know that Geraldo Rivera has no idea what’s going on outside his own head. The Snake River Canyon jump equals, minus the looting and the rapes, Geraldo’s Al Capone’s Vaults. It’s a galaxy of emptiness when we turn on the tube. (Thank you, Beth Orton). Geraldo realizes none of this. He wants to get analytical. He thinks he can.

The man who got his arms broken by Evel — for which Evel went to prison, and for him that was the beginning of the end (no more Stunt Cycles, no more action figures) — says Evel should be forgiven and remembered for his good.

Wow.

The man had money, cars, homes, his own toy line, and more women than any of us can expect. Of course he melted down — not only because Western superstars melt down, but because, as Johnny Carson pointed out, he was making a lot of money from trying to kill himself. He had to go forward into probable death, because he could not go back. To go back, or to refuse to go forward, was a coward’s way. He was the consummate American man, and he could not take a coward’s way.

And like all consummate American men, he looked that certain way, whether he was jumping a motorcycle or giving one of those speeches he loved even more.

He looked lonely.