Johnny Knoxville’s ‘Jackass’ Growing Pains: How a Violent Bull Stunt Made Him Stop Living Dangerously

·13-min read

As the star of “Jackass,” the MTV series born in 2000 that turned into a blockbuster movie franchise, Johnny Knoxville has badly injured every part of his body, from his head to his limbs to his — uh, groin area. But while making “Jackass Forever,” the fourth Paramount film that follows a beloved ensemble of dudes (and one woman) who attempt painful stunts involving blunt objects and dangerous animals, Knoxville finally hit a wall. Or rather, a bull — it ran him over.

Knoxville had been building toward the no-holds-barred stunt for weeks while shooting the movie, which opens in theaters on Feb. 4. “I was trying to do a magic trick in a bull ring,” Knoxville explains over a breakfast in West Hollywood in December, days before omicron made people go into hiding again. “I wanted to prank an animal, and that’s what we came up with.” But the bull didn’t find the joke funny, and the animal charged Knoxville, flipping him over and knocking him out cold. “He was snoring for three or four minutes,” says the film’s director, Jeff Tremaine. “It was gnarly.”

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Which is one way to describe “Jackass Forever,” of course. True to the “Jackass” spirit, the film is packed with gross-out high jinks. A spoiler-free sampling, offered Mad Libs style: Gallons of [AN ANIMAL’S BODILY FLUID] being poured on someone who doesn’t deserve it; a forced kiss with [A SLITHERING CREATURE]; a metal pogo stick landing on [A VERY SENSITIVE PART OF THE MALE BODY]; Machine Gun Kelly, the rapper and actor, getting slapped with [A RUBBER OBJECT]; and Steve-O, a regular on the series, exposing himself to a hive of bees, who sting [NC-17-RATED MATERIAL]. It all builds up to the bull scene.

On the set that day, an ambulance arrived and loaded Knoxville onto a gurney. “I get in, and they’re asking me questions,” Knoxville says. “They asked me who’s the president” — this was in December 2020 — “and I couldn’t come up with it. I said Obama.” Knoxville is telling this story quickly, like a standup routine, as he waits for his plate of eggs. “Maybe because that’s who I was wishing for. ‘Please, please, Obama!’”

He laughs. “They’re like, ‘Nooooo!’” The bull’s final toll: “I got a broken wrist, broken rib, concussion and brain hemorrhage,” Knoxville says matter-of-factly. He tries to recall if he’s had a brain hemorrhage before, then describes it as “the first one I remember.” But while Knoxville knows this incident can be played for laughs, he also realizes the serious implications of putting himself in danger. “My family” — including his wife, director Naomi Nelson — “doesn’t like me doing this type of thing. This is the most wicked bull hit I’ve ever taken.”

Knoxville, 50, checked out of the hospital and continued to see a neurologist. When the producers on “Jackass Forever” suggested nixing other envelope-pushing stunts they’d saved for the end of the movie, the once indestructible Knoxville, whose body was an instrument for suffering, agreed to save himself. “Those were big, and could end as badly,” he says. “Or worse. I’ve done enough. I don’t have anything to prove. I have kids” — three of them — “to raise. That’s the most important thing.” After 20 years of playing America’s most mischievous stuntman, Knoxville is ready to hand over the reins to a new generation of pranksters.

Johnny Knoxville Variety
Johnny Knoxville Variety

“Jackass Forever” arrives a decade after the last entry, 2010’s “Jackass 3D,” a box office smash that earned $170 million worldwide on a modest budget. The new film brings back most of the series’ regular troupe of stuntmen, including Wee Man, Chris Pontius, Dave England, Ehren McGhehey and Preston Lacy. The “Jackass” co-creators, producer Spike Jonze (who, in his other life, has been nominated for several Academy Awards, and won an Oscar for writing “Her”) and director Tremaine, resume their duties behind the camera. But the movie adds a new, younger crop of “Jackass” mentees, including MTV stuntman Zach Holmes, surfer Sean “Poopies” McInerney, actor Eric Manaka, rapper Jasper Dolphin and comedian Rachel Wolfson, whom Knoxville discovered on Instagram.

Before shooting began, the O.G. members and the new pledge class gathered together in a house, just to see how they’d gel. “Spike’s like, ‘We need to do a test to see how it looks and feels — we don’t want to do it if it feels sweaty being our age,’” Knoxville says. “Within about 30 minutes, we knew it felt great.”

While the series plays for laughs (and groans), “Jackass” has had its share of tragedy and hardships when the cameras weren’t rolling. In 2008, Knoxville and other “Jackass” friends had to stage an intervention for Steve-O, his on-camera wingman, who then checked himself into rehab. “I just want to say the first two ‘Jackass’ movies, I was in the grips of drugs and alcohol and I was really compromised,” Steve-O says. “On the third movie, I was newly sober and uncomfortable. And then 10 years later, we get together for this fourth one, and it just felt like on-camera, I was so much more comfortable.”

In 2011, stuntman Ryan Dunn died in a car crash after a night of drinking. His Porsche ran off the road at 130 miles per hour, bursting into flames and killing both him and a passenger — 30-year-old production assistant Zachary Hartwell. “It was a brutal loss for everyone and something that sticks with me and all of us to this day,” Knoxville says. “My kids don’t know Ryan, and it breaks my heart.”

“Jackass Forever” started to film in March 2020, but production swiftly shut down due to COVID-19. When shooting resumed in the fall, Bam Margera, a “Jackass” skateboarder and a famous member of the group, wasn’t invited back after allegedly testing positive for Adderall. In February 2021, Margera released a series of disturbing videos on Instagram, where he appeared inebriated and claimed that the movie had stolen his stunts and forced him to get drug tested. He’s now suing Paramount, Knoxville and Tremaine, claiming he was wrongfully fired from the film and alleging that he endured “psychological torture in the form of a sham Wellness Agreement.” (A representative from Paramount declined to comment. Margera couldn’t be reached for comment.)

Margera, whose name is listed 45 out of 49 performers in the film’s end credits, appears in only one stunt in “Jackass Forever.” “We wanted him all throughout the movie, but unfortunately that’s not the way it worked out,” Knoxville says. “It’s really heartbreaking. I love Bam. We all love Bam. He’s our brother, you know? You just hope that he takes it upon himself to get the help that he needs, because we all care about him a lot.”

Asked if he was surprised by the lawsuit, Knoxville responds: “Yes and no. Because he’s in such a way that anything’s possible. So, something will break your heart — but it might not shock you.”

• • •

“Jackass” has become a life-defining franchise for Knoxville, catapulting him to fame. The TV series was so popular and controversial when it premiered that it featured a warning in its opening credits, imploring teenage audiences not to stage copycat stunts at home. (Many still did.) Even as his bank account exploded, Knoxville never saw himself as a brand — or as a businessman. “I’m more into creating,” he says. But the success of “Jackass” led to acting opportunities (we’ll get to 2005’s “The Dukes of Hazzard” in a minute) and producing. He now runs two companies: Hello Junior and Dickhouse Prods., the latter of which he operates with Tremaine and Jonze. One of his passions is backing documentaries, a genre that he loves so much, he can rattle off a list of favorite titles (Errol Morris’ “Vernon, Florida” and the gangster caper “Operation Odessa” among them) at lightning speed.

When he arrived in Hollywood in the late ’90s, Knoxville was just a guy from Tennessee, looking for a way to pay the bills between auditions. He recalls pitching an article where he wanted to test out self-defense equipment — on himself. “And a few people wanted it, but they didn’t want to be associated with it,” Knoxville says, “because I was going to shoot myself with a .38, with a bulletproof vest on.”

Johnny Knoxville attempts to prank a bull in “Jackass Forever.” - Credit: Sean Cliver
Johnny Knoxville attempts to prank a bull in “Jackass Forever.” - Credit: Sean Cliver

Sean Cliver

Tremaine, an editor at the skateboarding magazine Big Brother — which specialized in shocking content — had no such fears. He greenlit the idea, telling Knoxville to get it on camera too. Soon they had footage for what would become “Jackass,” and the MTV series immediately became part of the zeitgeist. It was so big that even Brad Pitt (whom Jonze directed in “Being John Malkovich”) did a cameo where he faked his own kidnapping. “He was down to really go for it,” Knoxville says. “We were concerned for him. We were like, ‘Let’s back it down a little, Brad.’”

But as quickly as “Jackass” became a huge success, it ended: Knoxville walked away from the show after only 25 episodes over three seasons. “It was an election year, and we’d had some copycat incidents, unfortunately,” he says, looking back. “And Joseph Lieberman was Al Gore’s running mate, and he decided his platform was going to be tough on Hollywood — specifically us. He really came down on us in the press, and brought a lot of heat for Viacom and MTV,” Knoxville says. “We started getting assigned OSHA guys saying, ‘You can’t do this! You can’t jump off anything higher than four feet!’ It was impossible to do the show.”

Lieberman doesn’t recall his comments about “Jackass” from 20 years ago as clearly as Knoxville does, and he didn’t know that he contributed to the ending of the series. “Senator Lieberman says that he remembers this episode but not in great detail,” Lieberman’s executive assistant Vernell Glover writes in an email to Variety. “He was motivated to speak out because a teenager from Connecticut seriously burned himself mimicking a stunt he saw on ‘Jackass.’ He called on the network presenting the show to better protect juveniles than the warnings they gave. He believes they changed the show to a later hour. The Connecticut case was not the only harmful response to ‘Jackass.'”

Knoxville quit “Jackass” in 2001 by giving an interview to his hometown paper, which took everyone by surprise — especially his bosses. But they soon reached a compromise, given that he was still under contract with MTV, to take “Jackass” to the big screen, where he could attempt R-rated stunts. No one thought the films would continue the phenomenon. Before he filmed 2002’s “Jackass: The Movie,” Knoxville had launched an acting career, appearing in “Men in Black II” and “Deuces Wild.”

When asked about his memories of making 2005’s critically despised “The Dukes of Hazzard” (Knoxville portrayed Luke Duke in a reboot of the kitschy ’80s TV series), he laughs into his eggs. “Hahahahahaha! That’s a real throwaway question. I remember the preparation — no.”

In her 2020 memoir, “Open Book,” Jessica Simpson wrote about having an “emotional affair” with Knoxville on the set of that film. The two were both married to other people at the time. “I knew this was a segue,” Knoxville says when asked about Simpson. “I didn’t read it,” he says of her memoir. “I have nothing but nice things to say about Jessica, but I couldn’t tell you about her book.”

• • •

About 15 years ago, when he started therapy, Knoxville drew a line through the one topic he wouldn’t discuss. “I was like, ‘There’s a lot of things I want to fix about myself. But why I do the stunts, I don’t want to touch it.’” He didn’t want to dig deeper into why he hurt himself.

“Jackass Forever” is the first time Knoxville actively pursued making a “Jackass” movie. Before the pandemic, he had lunch with Tremaine, and Knoxville said he was ready to get the group back together. He’d spent the past decade emailing himself stunt concepts, one email at a time — ideas they could try if they ever did another “Jackass.” (Knoxville had to scroll through his account to find them, and print them out.) “He had probably a binder with 200 pages of ideas that he’d been writing,” Tremaine says. “That made the decision easier. He had a bunch of funny shit ready to go.”

But it was a rocky start. When Steve-O was asked to return, he pushed back, asking for more money. “You know, frankly, I felt that over the last 10 years that I’d really worked extremely hard to build momentum for myself as a brand in my own right,” says Steve-O, who hosts a popular podcast, “Wild Ride! With Steve-O.” “I wanted to retroactively stick up for myself. Over the course of ‘Jackass,’ I had never so much as countered. I never pushed back.”

Knoxville performs a stunt in “Jackass Forever.” - Credit: Mike Blabac
Knoxville performs a stunt in “Jackass Forever.” - Credit: Mike Blabac

Mike Blabac

So with encouragement from his lawyer, Steve-O asked for a significant raise, which Paramount didn’t want to give him. As negotiations dragged on, he went public in interviews, talking about how he hadn’t signed his contract yet, which led to a rift between him and Knoxville. They made up after Steve-O gave in and took the deal. “What can I say? I was an asshole,” Steve-O says. “I said, ‘Hey, I want to acknowledge the way I handled the whole contract situation — it was fucking bullshit, man.’ I called to acknowledge it, and just put it out there that I was wrong and wanted to make it right. It was the most healing conversation that he and I had ever had. I felt emotional about it.”

There could be more “Jackass” movies — Knoxville doesn’t count out the possibility. Does Steve-O believe his buddy is really done with dangerous stunts? “I always hated it,” Steve-O says about Knoxville putting himself in life-threatening situations. “You go back to ‘Jackass Number Two,’ and I’m looking through the cracks of my fingers. Of course, once it’s over and everything is OK, it’s this wonderful thing that you’re so stoked. But when it’s happening, it fucking sucks. And on this fourth one, it wasn’t OK.”

It’s a miracle that Knoxville hasn’t been permanently physically broken by “Jackass.” He describes the recovery process from his injury in the bullring. “My cognitive skills took a couple of months to come back,” Knoxville says. “I was walking and talking and carrying on a conversation, but I wasn’t 100% for three months. I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t focus on anything, which is a problem usually, but it was really a problem. I was like a butterfly, flying around.”

It was some time before he started to feel like himself again. “I was going to this neurologist, and they were doing some mental exercises,” Knoxville says. “They were doing this magnetic treatment on my brain.”
He can’t say how “Jackass” has changed his physicality forever. He considers the possibility of talking to his shrink about it now, since he’s decided to retire from being so reckless. “Luckily, I’m not very in touch with my body,” Knoxville says. “I’ve disassociated from my body a lot. I don’t sit around going, ‘Oh God, I’ve got these injuries.’

“I did it to myself, right?”

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