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A daring soul

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

I think it's safe to say: There will never be another Evel Knievel. It's highly unlikely that any other human on Earth will attempt so many grandiose stunts with as much verve and swagger, knowing from experience that he is just as likely to break his body into bits as to walk away uninjured.

But that was Evel Knievel -- crazy around the edges, but quintessentially American and legendary. He died Nov. 30 at age 69 -- a milestone no one would have expected him to reach considering the multiple concussions and dozens of broken bones he'd suffered attempting to launch bikes over cars, buses, sharks and canyons.

Knievel's death prompted me to revisit an interview I'd had with the man back in June 2004. At the time, he was pimping his living-legend status -- driving around the country in a luxury RV, carrying a pet Maltese named Rocket on his lap and hauling a trailer packed with $3 million worth of legendary motorcycle memorabilia. Car and motorcycle dealerships all over the country were paying him $10,000 to $25,000 to show up, sign autographs and take rides with their employees and customers.

He was in failing health but still motorcycling, he said, because "I just feel if I do it, I'm going to get better."

On the day we met, Knievel was multi-tasking. He was combining a paid stop at Galpin Motors in Van Nuys with a visit to a pulmonary doctor at UCLA. Knievel's lungs were scarred from working in the copper mines of Montana when he was a teenager, and he'd been given three to five years to live, which is exactly how it played out. Knievel died at his condominium in Clearwater, Fla., after experiencing breathing difficulties resulting from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

Like a lot of men his age, Knievel, who was 65 at the time of our interview, spent a lot of time talking about his health, only he had more than the usual catalog of complaints. A life of death-defying stunts was finally catching up with him in old age.

Unbuttoning his Hawaiian skull-and-crossbones shirt, he ran a Liberace-esque jeweled finger across the raised, white-seamed scars on his chest, back and arms. In 2004, Knievel had undergone a double-union spine fusion to remedy the decades of pain caused from breaking his back during a 1972 attempt to hurdle 15 cars on two wheels. He also broke his knee after slipping in his whirlpool.

In 2000, he'd had his hip replaced. In 2001, he'd received an organ transplant to cure the liver disease caused not by the Wild Turkey he was known to sip from his walking cane, which doubled as a portable bar, but the hepatitis C he received from one of his many blood transfusions due to stunt-induced injuries.

It truly was a marvel he was still breathing, but Knievel was an optimist. Toward the end of our interview, he shared with me his five secrets for success, which are probably what kept him going. "If you have just those five things and nothing else," he said, "everything will fall into place."

1. You have to believe in God. Atheists make no contributions to the face of the Earth.

2. Your health. Let's say somebody stuck an ax in your back right now. You are your back.

3. You have to have something you love to do.

4. You have to have someone to love and someone who loves you.

5. You have to have a dream. You've got to get out from where you're at and realize your dream with that someone you love.

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