Jackass the Man

Philip John Clapp should be smiling. He's the star and producer behind Jackass the Movie, one of the hottest films in America right now. In just the past two years Clapp has transformed himself from a struggling Hollywood actor whose career peak was a Bud Ice commercial into Johnny Knoxville, an internationally known cultural icon.

Tell it to someone else.

Seated at a lunchtime table at Preston's, in South Beach's Loews Hotel, the 31-year-old Knoxville is the living embodiment of haggard. Operating on only a few hours of shuteye, he's sporting a scruffy beard, a baseball cap, and aviator sunglasses, which do little to mask the effects of an all-night Washington Avenue bar crawl.

"What do I want next?" he repeats aloud, removing his sunglasses to rub his bloodshot eyes. "I wanna get some sleep."

The conversation is taking place the day before Jackass's opening, and the film's executives at MTV Films and Paramount have Knoxville on a grueling promotional schedule, from crack-of-dawn radio appearances to lunch meetings like this one. Not that he's complaining. "It's pretty brutal," he sighs, "but compared to digging a ditch, I'd rather do this."

To be sure, Knoxville's ditch-digging days are long gone. He now reportedly commands a cool one million dollars per film, snagging roles in such blockbusters as Men in Black II because studio executives believe his devoted fans will seek out any feature in which he appears.

And he's instantly recognized in public, whether it's at a chic Los Angeles nightspot, here at Preston's, or inside his favorite Miami Beach haunt, the decidedly gritty Mac's Club Deuce. Still, it's an odd kind of fame. "Girls will throw lit cigarettes at me," he says, shaking his head in wonder. "I've had girls come up to me at the Deuce and say, Oh, I love your show!' Then they haul off and hit me in the mouth."

Pretty bizarre. But then Knoxville's Jackass is a pretty bizarre phenomenon. When it first began airing on MTV in October 2000 as a 30-minute program, Knoxville and his crew of skate-punk pals took both reality programming and gleeful masochism to new levels. The cast included 28-year-old Steve-O, who left the University of Miami after a single semester for the more academically intriguing Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College; Bam Margera, 23 years old, a professional skateboarder; and 28-year-old Chris Pontius, usually clad in nothing but a leopard-print thong -- all acting like, well, jackasses.

Episodes would feature these characters flying off their skateboards into walls, shooting each other with stun guns, immersing themselves face-first in tanks of stinging jellyfish, sitting inside a much-used Porta-Potty as it is flipped upside down, and re-creating Cool Hand Luke's hard-boiled-egg-eating contest with predictably messy results. Unsettling? At times. Squirm-inducing? Oh yeah. And also very, very funny.

Jackass quickly became MTV's top-rated show (prior to The Osbournes), but it wasn't just Americans who were tuning in. MTV's various foreign channels began showing a subtitled Jackass and garnering a similar response. "The show is huge in Latin America," says Linda Alexander, MTV Latin America's senior vice president of communications. Alexander is at something of a loss to explain Knoxville's south-of-the-border appeal, but she does know how to utilize his crossover potential. That's the reason Knoxville was a featured presenter at the first-ever MTV Video Music Awards Latin America, held at the Beach's Jackie Gleason Theater last month.

But Knoxville's appearance on the awards show wasn't just an enticement for Latin viewers; it also was a draw for the American audiences Alexander hoped would tune into the show's domestic broadcast on MTV proper, looking for the star amid the Spanish-language ceremonies and the unfamiliar bands.

Knoxville himself is loath to deconstruct his worldwide attraction: "It says more about them than it does us." Prodded to elaborate, he shrugs, "All around the world people love to see you get half-naked and wrecked. It's pretty universal. You could show Jackass without dialogue most of the time. If you run into a wall and fall down, people laugh."

As for the so-called Latin music revolution he's been roped into, in his mind it's nothing more than a free trip to Miami. "They told me what award I was presenting, but I wasn't paying attention," he laughs.

That much was clear during the actual awards show. To thunderous applause Knoxville and fellow Jackass members Ryan Dunn and Jason "Wee Man" Acuña strode out to the podium, abandoned their mangled try at reading their Spanish lines off a teleprompter, and simply raised their arms in triumph. The show's emcee then placed a boombox near the microphone and played a phone message from Chilean rockers La Ley, who apologized for being stuck at the Dallas airport and missing the event. Just off-mike, it sounded an awful lot like Dunn muttered into Knoxville's ear: "Why didn't we think of that?"

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Brett Sokol
Contact: Brett Sokol

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