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'Being Evel'

"Being Evel" is a "warts and all" examination of the Butte-born daredevil's stranger-than-fiction life.

See no Evel, hear no Evel, speak no Evel? Good luck with that at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival this weekend, where almost four hours of Knievel-focused films will crash into your lives.

“Being Evel” and “Chasing Evel” delve into the complicated, fascinating and ego/alcohol-driven life of Evel Knievel, the motorcycle daredevil from Butte.

“Chasing Evel” comes with a subtitle – “The Robbie Knievel Story” – but rest assured, Evel dominates his youngest son’s story the same way he dominated headlines in the 1970s.

Several of the same people talk to the cameras in the two documentaries, most notably Evel’s long-suffering first wife Linda and oldest son Kelly, and there’s no question both films cover acres of the same ground.

But Oscar winner Daniel Junge’s “Being Evel” is the consummate look at the rise and fall of Evel Knievel.

Jesse James Miller’s “Chasing Evel” pulls back the curtain on the rocky – and sometimes violent – relationship Knievel had with the son who chose to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“Evel broke bones. Robbie broke records,” says one family friend.

Both “possessed huge egos, which needed to be fed constantly,” says another.

***

Evel Knievel was a legend in Butte, where he was raised by his grandparents, before the rest of the world ever knew of him.

He was in trouble with the law regularly, and got the “Evel” nickname while in jail – although the officer who gave it to him would have spelled it “Evil.”

After dropping out of high school Knievel started a security service in Butte which, according to his cousin, former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, worked like this: “You’d pay him to make sure all the doors were locked, and if you didn’t pay him, you might be robbed in a month or so.”

At the age of 19, Knievel started a semi-pro hockey team, somehow convinced the Czechoslovakian national team to come to Butte for a game – and then disappeared during the second period with the gate receipts, before the Czechs could see a dime (the U.S. Olympic Committee picked up the visitors’ travel expenses to avoid an international incident).

Knievel began a new career as an insurance salesman, and in one week wrote a record 271 life insurance policies for Combined Insurance Co. – most all of them, it would turn out, sold to patients at a state psychiatric hospital.

Knievel moved to Moses Lake, Washington, to sell motorcycles, and it was there that he staged his first jump, in an effort to lure potential customers to the dealership. He jumped a collection of cougars and rattlesnakes. He put a white lab coat on a friend and introduced him to the crowd as the veterinarian there to care for the animals’ needs.

“The cougars wouldn’t come out of their cages,” the “veterinarian” reported, “but the snakes were pissed off” – especially when, as he would do so often, Knievel failed to make it all the way to the landing ramp and clipped the box containing the rattlers.

***

It was the unsuccessful jumps that fueled Knievel’s success.

“He told me, ‘I’m really good at taking off. What I’m bad at is the landings,’ ” Williams says in “Being Evel.” “But it was the bad landings that brought the crowds out. Bobby used to say, ‘Nobody wants to see me die, but they don’t want to miss it if I do.’ ”

He was a showman and a con man. The story about his famed attempt at jumping the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in 1967 is priceless – Knievel passed himself off as various reporters for various media outlets, including Sports Illustrated, to trick the casino owner into believing there was national buzz about the jump – and there was no turning back.

“Being Evel” chronicles the increasingly difficult jumps leading up to the most audacious of them all, his 1974 attempt to ride a rocket across the Snake River Canyon – and the fortune that came with the fame.

“Here was this small-town guy,” oldest son Kelly says, “who, in the space of seven years, became one of the most famous people in the world.”

“I’m risking my life for it,” Knievel says of the millions of dollars he was suddenly earning, that allowed him to buy multiple yachts, Ferraris and Learjets, “and I’m gonna spend every damn dime of it. All the money in the world can’t buy your way into heaven or buy your way out of hell. It was meant to be spent right here, and I’m gonna have the best clothes, best boats, best diamonds, best cars, best trucks, best motorcycles, booze and women on the face of the Earth just as long as I can keep going.”

***

He didn’t keep going all that long. When he took a baseball bat to the promoter of the Snake River Canyon jump – Evel, who had signed off on Shelly Saltman’s book about the jump before it was published, suddenly decided it didn’t paint him in a flattering light – his career was over.

Knievel lost the endorsement deals that had helped make him rich, including the contract with the Ideal Toy Co., which manufactured the wildly popular Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle.

While Evel was on his way down, son Robbie was on his way up.

But Robbie never came close to his father’s fame or fortune. For one thing, “Chasing Evel” makes clear, Robbie was far superior to his father when it came to jumping.

He may have been too good. He didn’t crash nearly as often. He successfully completed jumps Evel couldn’t finish, and bettered ones his father had.

Replacing the potential for disaster with competency didn’t resonate with the public.

Robbie clashed early and often with his father. At one point, the son recalls missing his curfew and his father beating him so badly that it included being kicked in the face and having his nose broken.

“He had the personality of a freight train,” Kelly Knievel says of his father. “He could be overwhelming with us, and my mom had to get between us.”

“He was insulted his kid didn’t think he was the greatest dad in the world,” Linda Knievel says. “I just never dreamed Bob would be so abusive.”

***

The Snake River Canyon jump is a good example of why both Knievel documentaries are must-sees for anyone interested in Evel or Robbie.

“Being Evel” chronicles the chaos of the whole thing – fights, public sex, public rapes, public drunkenness, public drug abuse. It even interviews a couple of people from the Butte High School marching band, which had been invited to perform.

“They stuffed my tuba and filled it with everything,” Mark Lisac recalls of the rowdy crowds. “Beer bottles, popcorn, peanuts, rocks, I pulled a bra out of there. I never played a note.”

Knievel, so careful to project a certain image, unraveled as the pressure of the jump mounted, and the press soon saw the real Evel: “He’s a jerk, he’s a boor, he’s a bully,” one of them says.

In “Chasing Evel,” Robbie recalls the day from a child’s perspective.

“Trying to take it all in at 12 was hard,” he says. “What are you doing? Just get inside of a bomb, and it explodes? Geez, Dad might not be coming home.”

When the chute on the “sky cycle” deployed early, preventing it from coming anywhere close to crossing the canyon, Robbie assumed the worst.

“I thought, ‘He’s gone,’ ” he remembers. “But he blew back. The lucky bastard. I thought, ‘Oh great, I’ve got to live with him yelling at me some more?’ ”

Evel craved the fame and fortune. Robbie craved the approval of a father more prone to jealousy. “Being” and “Chasing” do their jobs very well, and even though they were made separately and released two years apart, watching both will more than double your insight into one of Montana’s most famous families.

They will also drive home the point a family friend makes in “Chasing Evel.”

“The Knievels,” he says, “are a different breed of human being.”

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