Johnny Knoxville takes golden-years raunch on the road

Johnny Knoxville, who stars in the movie "Bad Grandpa," inside his office at Dickhouse Productions in Burbank.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“The right ring finger. ... No, THE LEFT RING FINGER!”

It’s minutes before sunrise at Westchester’s Kerlan-Jobe sports medicine clinic and Johnny Knoxville has very nearly, accidentally, authorized orthopedic surgery on the wrong hand. His uninjured hand.

A clinic administrator taking down Knoxville’s information shakes her head in disbelief. Within the hour, the co-creator and breakout star of MTV’s cultishly beloved series “Jackass” — and a trio of spinoff movies that have a combined gross of more than $335 million — will be under general anesthesia and no longer able to rectify any self-inflicted finger fiascoes.

Looking jaunty in the waiting room, wearing a garrison cap and Buddy Holly glasses, Knoxville can’t quite stifle a laugh. “That would’ve been pretty silly,” he says, attempting to make a fist without the cooperation of his unbending digit.


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Given the Tennessee native’s unique occupational hazards as Hollywood’s preeminent stunt doofus — a fall guy who has voluntarily been shot by a riot-control sandbag gun, offered up his left pectoral to be bitten by a baby alligator and launched himself skyward on a giant rocket Wile E. Coyote style all in the name of fun — you can forgive Knoxville for being somewhat cavalier about his physical well-being. This is the guy for whom the opening line from Roger Alan Wade’s famous country ditty “If you’re gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough” applies as both lifestyle choice and mission statement.

While filming his ribald candid-camera comedy “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” (arriving in theaters Oct. 25 and featuring Knoxville, 42, as a libidinous, pratfall-prone octogenarian) the performer sustained a torn shoulder, a fractured elbow and “a screwy thing” with his foot.

But the ripped tendon that brought Knoxville to Kerlan-Jobe, primarily known for treating players from the L.A. Lakers, Dodgers, Angels and Kings, is a different kind of sports injury. One that can be traced back to the loved-up high accompanying a certain designer drug.

“We were shooting a promo at this frat house in Arizona,” Knoxville explains in the pre-op waiting area. “I was sitting with all the students watching the movie. One of them dosed me with Ecstasy. So I was running around ... out of my mind. ‘No pain!’ I smashed through a table. I was climbing up a basketball net and hanging close to the rim. That may have snapped it.”

In full prosthetic makeup at the time as his “Bad Grandpa” character Irving Zisman — a white-haired, polyester-clad 86-year-old of loose moral caliber who has cameoed to hilariously vulgar effect pranking unsuspecting passersby on the show and in previous “Jackass” films — Knoxville chose to accept the druggy predicament. He, ahem, rolled with it, rather than try to buck his karmic fate.


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“Any other movie promo where the talent had been dosed would have been shut down immediately,” he says. “We just kept shooting. Everyone on my crew was psyched; they thought it was hilarious. Derek, our producer, texted me: ‘Do you need a hug?’”

Life has a funny way of battering Knoxville over the head for giggles while also — incidentally but assuredly — helping propel his stardom. In 1998, the then-underemployed actor (né: Philip John “PJ” Clapp) parlayed stunt demonstrations for the skateboard-humor magazine Big Brother into the “Jackass” franchise. Among the stunts, Knoxville shot himself with a .38-caliber pistol while wearing the cheapest bulletproof vest on the market and got zapped with a 120,000-volt Taser.

Forming a loose confederacy of like-minded dunces with such series regulars as Ryan Dunn, Bam Margera, Stephen “Steve-O” Glover, Jason “Wee Man” Acuña and Chris Pontius — and Academy Award-nominated writer-director Spike Jonze rounding out the team as an occasional on-camera performer and producer — the “Jackass” collective proceeded to generate shock entertainment from ritual humiliation and deliberate self-harm with a dash of winking homoeroticism thrown in for good measure.

The MTV series ran from 2000 to 2001, spawning a trio of low-budget/high-yield films in its wake (the most recent, 2010’s “Jackass 3-D,” was shot for $20 million and grossed a robust $171 million worldwide). And Hollywood came calling to offer Knoxville minor acting gigs in such mainstream films as “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” and “The Last Stand” opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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But “Bad Grandpa” represents a departure for the self-described “half-assed stuntman,” a kind of career shot in the arm. As far back as 2006, Paramount Pictures, the studio that has theatrically distributed every “Jackass” film, began urging Knoxville to spin off a film centered on Irving Zisman, or “old man” as he’s informally known. The idea was to practical joke his way across the country à la Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character.

But Knoxville resisted at every turn, convinced the hidden-camera prank premise was too thin to support a traditional narrative and cowed by the rough time he was going through personally.

“I couldn’t have done this movie then,” he says. “I was really all over the place, spinning my wheels. I was out in the bars all the time. I wasn’t in the right head space. I couldn’t have written or performed it.”

Added Jeff Tremaine, producer-director of the TV series and all the “Jackass”-branded films: “From a production standpoint, it’s a terrible idea for a movie. On the show, we could wing it. We’d run around and shoot stupid stuff — whatever we could get. Never did it seem like it could sustain a story.”

Around 2008, however, the brain trust at Knoxville and Tremaine’s Dickhouse Productions arrived at a novel conceit on which to hang the “Bad Grandpa” plot line: a travelogue loosely modeled on the 1973 movie “Paper Moon,” starring father-daughter tandem Ryan and Tatum O’Neal on a cross-country odyssey as Ryan’s con-man character attempts to deliver a 9-year-old girl to relatives.

By 2011, Dickhouse’s stable of writers, including Tremaine, Knoxville and Jonze, had sold Paramount on a script and landed a $20-million budget. From there, the production spent nearly 10 months of stop-start filming across six cities in three states the following year, during which Knoxville endured a daily four-hour regimen of hair and makeup to make Irving look persuasively decrepit.

“When you’re planning pranks, you have to prepare for at least eight to 12 days,” explains Knoxville. “You gotta find locations, the marks. It’s a lot of work.”

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According to Jonze, the shoot was more like an “experimental film” than a studio production. “We’d shoot, then edit and write for a couple weeks and shoot again,” says Jonze. “We were sort of making it up as we were going along.”

“You have the stupidest ideas and then you have everybody putting everything into making sure that the stupid idea gets executed properly,” Tremaine says. “The logistics were complicated.”

In “Bad Grandpa,” Knoxville’s old man, newly emancipated by the death of his wife, Ellie (a synthetic molding of Oscar-nominated actress Catherine Keener), spews crude but cryptic come-ons to every female within earshot. “I may be too old to stir the gravy,” Irving’s fond of saying. “But I can still lick the spoon.”

He’s the type of unreconstructed old salt to post up on a park bench and share a six-pack of beer with his 8-year-old grandson, Billy. A dirty old man given to public bouts of explosive farting, he’s the kind of guy who accidentally — excruciatingly — gets his “jim dog” stuck in the coin slot of a soda vending machine.

But when Irving’s daughter is jailed on crack-cocaine charges, the scabrous senior is reluctantly compelled to drive Billy (Jackson Nicoll) from Columbus, Ohio, to Raleigh, N.C., into the custody of the boy’s deadbeat dad. Their grandpa-grandson camaraderie evolves thanks to some “Jackass”-flavored bonding exercises: Irving pitching through a plate-glass window on a coin-operated children’s ride and the old man entering Billy — in drag — into a beauty pageant for preteen girls. The boy scandalizes the other contestants with a bump-and-grind striptease to the tune of Warrant’s cheese-metal 1990 hit “Cherry Pie.”

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“One guy did not like my stripper routine,” Nicoll recalls. “He was mad at Johnny. They were pushing each other, I think. And he was saying, ‘It’s child abuse!’”

The 9-year-old New Hampshire native — with whom Knoxville first worked on the 2012 teen comedy “Fun Size” — waits a beat before adding his unequivocal view of “Bad Grandpa’s” moviemaking M.O. “I think it was child fun!” he exclaims.

“We had a tiny story and funny ideas. What we pitched the studio really changed over the course of shooting to what you see now,” Knoxville says. “The gags, the story, the original tone — we just came out of the gates writing horrible stuff. Naughty, dirty stuff. The pranks were pretty insane. Then we brought it down to a more real place.”

Besides the superfluous raunch, additional footage featuring Jonze in senior prosthetic drag as an 86-year-old woman named “Gloria” was jettisoned, as were flashbacks featuring Keener’s Ellie character (the deleted scenes will be featured on the “Bad Grandpa” DVD release).

As recently as September, Jonze was still helping edit the movie — pulling double duty while completing post-production on his critically acclaimed romantic-dramedy “Her,” which will see its theatrical release in December. “I’d edit my movie in the day and go over there at night,” says Jonze. “That was my night job.”

According to those who have seen pre-release audience surveys, “Bad Grandpa” is on track for a strong opening and could take in more than its budget — as much as $35 million — in its first three days.

“When I was doing those bits for Big Brother, I always had hopes. But you can’t imagine this type of thing happening from such humble, idiotic beginnings,” says Knoxville, breaking into a laugh. “I don’t get caught up in all that stuff, though. I’m just trying to make it through the day.”


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