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"The stuff I've done so far is shit," he freely admits of his parts alongside Will Smith, Tim Allen, and Rene Russo in such major studio efforts as Men in Black II and Big Trouble. "The first two or three films I took, I was just trying to get experience. Now I'm trying to focus on the project."
And his prankster persona? "It's best to stop while people still want to see it, while it's still good," he muses. "Look at the Rolling Stones. People used to talk about them as the greatest rock and roll band ever. If they only would've stopped twenty years ago! Or The Andy Griffith Show -- first they lose Barney, then they lose Andy, and the show's still going on. What's the point?"
For the moment, however, people clearly still want to see it, and that has become the Hollywood business story of the season. Made on a shoestring five-million-dollar budget, Jackass the Movie was number one at the box office its opening weekend. With ticket sales still strong and more than $59 million grossed to date, the film is likely to become one of Paramount's most profitable pictures of the year -- and that's even before video sales kick in. Meanwhile reruns of the television episodes continue to pull in impressive ratings on MTV, and the soundtrack is climbing the charts. Could a Johnny Knoxville action figure be far off?
"MTV knows I'm done," Knoxville insists. He corrects himself, his voice rising with irritation, careful to close any loophole: "They know we're done. At some point they might come back and say, 'Will you do a sequel?' And we'll say No."
That decision thrills Knoxville's wife Melanie, who married him several years before Jackass and who has never sat easily with the show. In fact their six-year-old daughter Madison isn't even allowed to watch certain episodes. "I never tell my wife what I'm doing because she gets worried," Knoxville explains. "I just go off to work, do what I do, and then come home in a cast. Or I call her from the emergency room -- it'd be great if they gave out frequent flier miles there." He begins rattling off a series of concussions, sprains, and fractures the way someone else might recite a grocery list. Still running down his injuries, Knoxville casually adds, "I got stabbed in a fight," but stops short while he gauges the reaction. "That wasn't anything to do with the show," he corrects. "That was a friend's bachelor party." Arching an eyebrow, he deadpans, "It was a really good party."
All this began very simply for the Knoxville, Tennessee native. After moving to Hollywood in 1990, the eighteen-year-old drama-school dropout tried his hand at acting, a Jack Kerouac-inspired stab at the Great American Novel, even a brief attempt at studying Eastern philosophy at community college. It was while reading the newspaper one morning that he discovered his true calling. Police had subdued a particularly unruly criminal with a blast of pepper spray. Knoxville wondered: What exactly did that feel like? And wouldn't the answer make for a great magazine story?
The budding journalist was unable to find an editor who'd bite -- except for Jeff Tremaine, then heading the irreverent skateboarding bible Big Brother. In addition to writing about the pepper-spray experience, Tremaine suggested that Knoxville also videotape his handiwork.
Thus a star was born: Knoxville not only filmed himself receiving a facial blast of Mace, he upped the ante by strapping on a bulletproof vest and having an accomplice shoot him square in the chest with a .38 caliber bullet.
Not all the bits were violent, but self-ridicule was key. In one segment Knoxville visits a gym with a strategically placed dildo creating a pup tent in his sweatpants. A hidden camera captures the awkward reactions of those working out around him. The more Knoxville tries to make eye contact, asking for a spotter as he hefts his weights above his bulging pants, the more panicked the rest of the gym becomes. Sophomoric? Perhaps. But very, very funny.
Commercially released by Big Brother, these videotaped gags quickly became underground faves. Tremaine's high school buddy Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich as well as countless buzz-generating music videos for the likes of the Beastie Boys, Fatboy Slim, and Daft Punk, signed on as co-producer for a television version. A bidding war ensued and MTV was the victor.
Jackass didn't remain an underground sensation for long. By early 2001, its heightened profile brought with it controversy. Several copycat incidents grabbed headlines, in particular those of two teens who attempted to mimic Knoxville's "human barbecue" stunt, and suffered second- and third-degree burns in the process.
"It was made clear that the performer of the stunt was wearing a flame-retardant suit, that the stunt was dangerous, and that it should not be tried at home," MTV president Van Toffler said at the time. In the segment, Knoxville donned a "burn suit" commonly used in action films, tied on a pile of steaks, and then had himself rotisseried over a flaming pit. Nearly half the episode was given over to a stern-faced professional stuntman who warned how truly dangerous the act was.