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The film opens with shots of the empty Ontario Motor Speedway in California on the morning of February 28, 1971. George Hamilton, as "Robert Craig 'Evel' Knievel," arrives and, in character, directly addresses the camera, telling the audience what an honor it is to perform for them. After Hamilton rides off on his motorcycle, the onscreen credits begin. In the end credits, a disclaimer notes that while the film is based on Knievel's life, some characters and events are fictitious. The filmmakers thank several companies and locations in the end credits, including the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, Deer Lodge National Forest, the Houston Sports Association and The Anaconda Company. Although the film bears a 1971 copyright statement for The Fanfare Corporation, it was not registered for copyright.
Throughout the film, which consists largely of flashbacks detailing Knievel's life, voice-over by Hamilton describes the action. At the end, while he is driving through the desert toward the Grand Canyon, Hamilton, as Knievel, states that "important people" such as himself, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra have a responsibility to their fans to give their lives meaning. Calling himself "the last gladiator in the new Rome," Knievel then states that he will continue to go into the arena to compete because the only real choice left in life is how one will die, and his death will be glorious. Actual footage of the stunts performed by Knievel, such as his jump at Caesar's Palace, is intercut with staged footage of Hamilton and audiences watching the events.
The Knievel character is called predominately "Bobby" by the other characters in the film but is also referred to as "Evel," although the genesis of his nickname is not explained. Modern sources assert that in real life, Knievel was nicknamed Evel by a Butte, MT jailer after the troubled youth was put in a cell next to a man whose surname was Knoffle, and the man allegedly wisecracked: "We got Evil Knievel and Awful Knoffle here tonight." Reportedly, Knievel did not want to be associated with any unpopular motorcycle gang and so used Evel rather than Evil as his name when billing himself early in his career.
Knievel was born on October 17, 1938 in Butte, MT and reared by his grandparents after the divorce of his parents. In modern interviews, Knievel credited seeing an automobile stunt show at the age of eight with inspiring him to become a stunt daredevil. An excellent athelete, Knievel ran track in high school, became a champion skier, was a pole vaulter during his late 1950s stint in the U.S. Army, played hockey and participated in motocross races. Before forming his own daredevil troupe in 1965, Knievel worked in copper mines, sold life insurance, worked as a hunting guide, owned his own hockey team and sold motorcycles in Washington state.
As portrayed in the film, at the beginning of his career as a stuntman, Knievel built his own ramps, engineered the stunts and promoted himself relentlessly. Knievel began by jumping cars, trucks and buses, through fire walls and over tanks of live rattlesnakes and mountain lions. Knievel's first nationally publicized jump took place on January 1, 1968, when he attempted to jump 151 feet across the fountains in Las Vegas' Caesar's Palace. Although the jump was successful, Knievel landed badly and was in a coma for 30 days. The world-record-breaking jump depicted in the film took place on February 28, 1971, when the stuntman jumped over nineteen cars at the Ontario Motor Speedway.
Knievel long dreamed of jumping a rocket-powered motorcycle across the Grand Canyon, but, deterred by the U.S. Department of the Interior and Navajo Indians living in the area, he instead obtained land on both sides of Idaho's Snake River and jumped the quarter-mile span in his "Skycycle" on September 8, 1974. Strong winds blew him down into the chasm but he escaped serious injury. One of the most popular sports figures ever featured on the long-running ABC show Wide World of Sports, Knievel officially retired in late 1975, although he continued to perform in smaller exhibitions. Despite being listed in the Guiness Book of World Records for having broken 35 bones, Knievel groomed his son Robbie as his successor, and in 1999, the younger Knievel successfully jumped a 200-foot plus span of the Grand Canyon in fulfillment of his father's dream. Some sports analysts attribute the trend in "extreme sports" that started in the late twentieth century to the elder Knievel's well-televised athleticism, popularity and showmanship.
According to a September 15, 1970 Daily Variety news item, Jack DeWitt was originally set to write the film's screenplay. Modern sources include Jerry Jensen and Cheryl Smith in the cast. As noted by contemporary sources, portions of the film were shot on location in Deer Lodge National Forest and Butte, MT, the Ontario Motor Speedway in Ontario, CA and Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park.
Evel Knievel marked the first motion picture produced by Hamilton, the screen debut of actress Kathy Baumann and the first theatrical film of prolific television director Marvin Chomsky, who went on to co-direct the groundbreaking 1977 television mini-series Roots. The film also marked the debut of actress Alana Collins, who married Hamilton in 1972 and took his last name. In 1979, she married musician Rod Stewart and acted under the name Alana Stewart. Evel Knievel also featured the last film appearance of actress Betty Bronson (1907-1971), best-known for her performance in the 1924 film version of Peter Pan (see below).
Several other movies and documentaries about Knievel have been made, including a 1974 CBS-TV series pilot called Evel Knievel, which was directed by Michael O'Herlihy and starred Sam Elliott; a 2000 television documentary, starring the Knievel family, entitled Touch of Evel; a 2004 TNT television movie, also titled Evel Knievel, directed by John Badham and starring George Eads; and a 2005 History Channel documentary called Absolute Evel: The Evel Knievel Story. Knievel played himself in a 1977, fictional feature film called Viva Knievel!, which was directed by Gordon Douglas and co-starred Gene Kelly and Lauren Hutton.