As a parent, you have to worry about your kids’ role models. The contemporary batch for my children has me particularly worried. There are pop stars who think a single entendre is never enough and celebrities who build their fame on sex tapes and selfies and by embracing their ignorance.
In sport there are NRL stars fascinated by dogs, cricketers who don’t realise they’re playing a team sport and AFL players who want to move back in with their parents.
In my day, my role models were rather straight up and down: Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Evel Knievel. The appeal of the demon fast bowlers was obvious. Knievel jumped over buses on motorbikes and over snake-infested canyons in rockets. What could be tougher or cooler?
The documentary Being Evel (M, Madman, 96min, $29.99), shows not much was tougher but plenty could be cooler. Robert Craig Knievel was a bad man: a con man, an adulterer and violent to boot. But a kid in the 1970s was protected from the reality: the Evel we knew was all image and achievement.
Director Daniel Junge does a great job showing why Knievel was alluring, but doesn’t shy away from the dark side.
Knievel grew up as a young crook in Butte, Montana, brought up by his grandparents after his parents split up and left. His rise from the pits remains extraordinary — as a brilliant insurance salesman, he lucked into stuntriding while trying to spruik Honda motorcycles — and it is zippily chronicled with copious pictures, clips and talking heads.
It is a fascinating warts-and-all story, with many of Knievel’s contemporaries laughing as well as shaking their heads at his early exploits and his drive to incredible notoriety and wealth, before his sharp, calamitous fall.
It was easy to fall for his spangled outfit that evoked Liberace and Elvis Presley, combined with his tough talk and actions. And revisiting his bone-crunching crashes at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in 1967 and at Wembley Stadium in London in 1975 is a reminder of why he was so easy to admire. As the actor who first played him, George Hamilton, notes, “Evel had a movie-star quality to him, no doubt about it. But not when he acted.”
His fall was brutal. Knievel’s misanthropy had to emerge eventually, and it did as his media appearances became snakier and his bones creakier. When he took to an old producer with a baseball bat, friends and business partners dumped him.
He made some apologies before his death in 2007 but it was too late. As his wife of 38 years, Linda, says in an achingly sad interview, “I just didn’t like him.”
We sort of realised Knievel was a showman and a shyster when, well past his prime, he visited Geelong in the late 1970s, and all he could do was a few wheelies.
He sold a good show, took our money and left town. As he did all his life.