The people ride in a hole in the ground… Oh, for the love of Julie Munshin.
Gene Kelly and Sugar Ray Robinson tap it out:
IF YOU’RE NOT KNIEVEL, YOU’RE NOT #1
It was the 1970s, and the bewildered youth of America needed a hero. Instead, we got Evel Knievel. Knievel, the self-proclaimed world’s greatest daredevil, roared out of Butte, Montana sometime in the 1960s with a unique flair for self-promotion, a collection of red, white and blue capes and a willingness to put himself in harm’s way by jumping over things on a motorcycle. Cars, Greyhound buses, a shark tank – Knievel revved up his motorcycle and flew over them. Sometimes he landed safely, sometimes he’d crash or careen out of control, his body thrown across the tarmac like an unwanted rag doll, leaving Wide World Of Sports announcers to ask each other “Will this be Evel’s final jump?”
In any era, a self-made celebrity like Knievel is bound to wind up on the silver screen. Knievel’s story was told in an eponymously titled 1971 film starring George Hamilton as Knievel, who famously described himself as “the last gladiator.” However, after his infamous Snake River Canyon jump, his line of toy cycles and dolls and another 5 years of jumps and crashes, the time was right to try to make a movie star out of Evel himself.
Thus, in 1977, movie audiences around the world were treated to Viva Knievel!, starring Evel Knievel as…Evel Knievel. Could he act? Would it matter? Not to kids like me, who could barely put down our Stunt Cycles or put away our Tour Vans long enough to sit through one of the greatest bad movies of all time.
As a film, Viva Knievel! is much like watching one of Knievel’s crashes. It’s an unholy mess, and yet we can’t look away, and it contains one of the strangest casts in movie history. Gordon Douglas directed the film, and one wonders if he got the job due to his rapport with Frank Sinatra. Douglas directed Sinatra in five films in the 1960s and was known as one of the few directors who could control Sinatra or at least get along with him. Warner Brothers may have felt he’d be the man to ride rein on Knievel. The problem with that thinking is that Frank Sinatra may have been difficult, but he could actually act and pretty damned well when he wanted to.
The film opens with Knievel sneaking into an orphanage at night to bring children the uplifting gift of Evel Knievel action figures. One child is so moved by Knievel’s presence, he throws away his crutches and tells Knievel he’s the reason he can walk again. That’s right folks – Knievel might have inspired your children to shatter their own bones emulating his crazy stunts, but don’t worry – his inspiration will have them out of their hospital beds in no time at all.
Soon enough, Knievel’s setting up his next jump with his alcoholic mechanic sidekick Will, played by Gene Kelly. GENE KELLY? Yes, that Gene Kelly. The cinematic icon, beloved the world over, now inexplicably reduced to playing Evel Knievel’s second banana. (What’s worse is that Kelly is genuinely bad in the role.) We also meet Evel’s unscrupulous promoter, played by Red Buttons. Apparently Warner Brothers was under the impression that the best way to make Knievel a movie star was to surround him with people who were really current and hip in 1977, you know, like Red Buttons and Gene Kelly. We’re treated to a great scene of Kelly threatening Buttons because he feels Evel’s last jump hadn’t been safe enough.
“What’s the matter with you? Evel is my pal too!” is Buttons’ meek response.