One of the first movies I remember seeing in a movie theater was Evel Knievel, and it was the first example of a young kid's skewed perception of a real-life public figure. For a while, George Hamilton seemed more like Evil Knievel than did Knievel himself. Maybe it's because, by 1971 and the surprisingly well-directed Marvin Chomsky film, Knievel seemed to have peaked as a daredevil motorcycle stunt rider.
Knievel, who died Friday at the age of 69, had yet to try what would be a ludicrous stunt: to "jump" the Snake River Canyon in a rocket-propelled bike. And, of course, he would never realize his dream of jumping the Grand Canyon. So, after the film, there wasn't that much to go on, really.
Which left me to think of him more as Hamilton who, believe it or not, exuded tons of charm in the movie. It wasn't his first attempt at a pop culture icon, having already played Hank Williams in Your Cheatin' Heart. More than anything else, Hamilton (currently known to most as a walking self-parody) had a grin that was bested perhaps only by contemporaries Burt Reynolds and Paul Newman. Hamilton makes Knievel out to be a poor man's James Dean-meets-Marlon Brando, a restless small-town rebel without a cause who found one: thrills. And in the process, Hamilton showed why Knievel thrilled others who came to see him either succeed or fail (and, by extension, die).
Hamilton's performance kicked off a now forgotten decade-long run of entertaining films that include Golden Globe-nominated performances in Love at First Bite and Zorro, the Gay Blade.
Here's a clip from Evel Knievel, which is sadly lacking in Hamilton actually performing. But still, it's a nice slice of nostalgia of a once entertaining actor portraying a once entertaining daredevil. (Speaking of daredevils, anyone remember the Chuck Connors-hosted TV show "Thrill Seekers," which lasted from 1973-74? I can't help but think the movie inspired the show.)
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