Monday, August 1, 2005

NEW YORK - This is not a story about drinking with Johnny Knoxville, something that’s been written so many times by now, it has practically become its own sub-genre within the gonzo journalism canon.

Well, OK, the interview did take place at a bar, and alcohol was involved, including a round of tequila shots that Mr. Knoxville ordered and suggested drinking “stuntman”-style, which entails snorting the salt and squirting the lime juice in your eye.

That’s about what you’d expect from the guy who created “Jackass,” the MTV reality series that made self-induced pain not just acceptable but fashionable, and made the charismatic Phillip John Clapp from Knoxville, Tenn., an instant star.

Only he’s not that guy — not all the time. He looks like that guy, with the trademark smoked aviator sunglasses, faux-hawk hairstyle and facial scruff, the stylishly distressed denim button-down, cut-off pants and worn-out Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers.

But sitting down for a beer at a midtown Manhattan hotel bar, Mr. Knoxville is more Southern gentleman than jackass. The 34-year-old is unerringly polite, addressing a waiter as “sir” and his interviewer as “ma’am” in a low, slow voice with a slight twang that emerges now and again.

He speaks earnestly about the forces that shaped him growing up (the music of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, the writing of Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson) and those that influence him now (his wife, Melanie, and their 9-year-old daughter, Madison, whose name is tattooed over his heart).

He’s also low-key on this afternoon as he prepares to leave New York — where he’s been barhopping nightly — for Atlanta, where his new movie, “The Dukes of Hazzard,” was to be shown for troops at a military base. It opens nationwide on Friday.

“It’s just such a good town. I always get sad when I leave,” Mr. Knoxville says. “I play really sad music all the way out to the airport — tons of outlaw country and western, like Willie, Waylon, Johnny.” (His IPod also contains entire sections of Broadway show tunes and Barbra Streisand songs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

This combination of contradictions — the rowdy party boy coupled with the sensitive romantic — has prompted comparisons to a number of Hollywood icons.

“Dukes of Hazzard” director Jay Chandrasekhar likens Mr. Knoxville to Burt Reynolds (who shows up in the movie as the villainous Boss Hogg), or a “funny Steve McQueen.”

Meanwhile Mr. Knoxville’s acting coach in Los Angeles sees similarities to Jack Nicholson. “They’re both inappropriate men who are honest about themselves, and that’s extraordinarily appealing,” said Cameron Thor, whose clients include Sharon Stone, Drew Carey and Cameron Diaz.

The son of a tire company owner and a homemaker, Mr. Knoxville jokes that he knew he wanted to be an actor when he was about 13 because it sounded like a job with the least amount of work involved.

“If I’d known about producing then, maybe I would have gone into that because there’s no work involved,” he says.

“Jackass,” which made Mr. Knoxville famous in his hometown and far beyond, came about by accident. He’d planned to try out self-defense equipment on himself — pepper spray, a Taser, etc. — then write about the experience. His editor, Jeff Tremaine, suggested videotaping the stunt. A phenomenon was born. There was the TV series, which ran from 2000-2002, and “Jackass: The Movie,” which Mr. Tremaine directed.

Though it was an ensemble program, Mr. Knoxville drew much of the attention, for better or worse — and he’d been offered a spot as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” which he turned down because it came up just as he was shooting the “Jackass” pilot.

“It was at the point where I either say yes to my friends, where we had all the control, or yes to ‘Saturday Night Live,’ where none of my friends were really going to be there and I had no control,” he says. “I just thought I made the right decision.”

A series of supporting roles in movies followed, including “Big Trouble,” “Men in Black II,” in which he played Lara Flynn Boyle’s two-headed alien sidekick, and “Walking Tall” with The Rock. Earlier this year, he played pimped-out skateboarding promoter Topper Burks in “Lords of Dogtown.”

“I don’t want to distance myself from ‘Jackass’ at all. I’m proud of ‘Jackass,’” Mr. Knoxville says. “It got me here and opened up all kinds of doors. It’s something me and my friends did. I’m very, very proud of it.”

Talk to Mr. Knoxville about his wife and daughter, though, and he’s clearly and understandably protective of them — especially when it comes to the recent rampant tabloid rumors about an affair with co-star Jessica Simpson, who plays Daisy Duke.

“I love the tabloids except for when I’m in ‘em,” he says. “Especially with the stuff they wrote about Jessica and I — it’s obviously not true. They write these things and, you know, I’ve got a daughter and a wife, and she’s got a husband, and it affects the families involved. Luckily, my wife and I have a dialogue. We talk about it.”

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