He lived life on a dare
Evel Knievel, the flamboyant motorcycle stuntman whose thrilling triumphs and spectacular failures enshrined him as America’s consummate daredevil, died Friday in Clearwater, Fla. He was 69.
Knievel, who survived at least 38 broken bones, multiple concussions and countless abrasions acquired in daring jumps that ended in unplanned crashes, had been in failing health for years, including suffering from diabetes and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable condition that scarred his lungs.
Longtime friend and promoter Billy Rundle told the Associated Press on Friday that Knievel had difficulty breathing at his Clearwater condominium and died before an ambulance could get him to a hospital.
“It’s been coming for years, but you just don’t expect it,” said Rundle. “Superman just doesn’t die, right?”
Knievel died only three days after it was announced that he and rapper Kanye West had settled a federal lawsuit over the use of the legendary daredevil’s trademarked name and likeness in a popular West music video.
Many of Knievel’s successes were remarkable -- riding fast motorcycles up steeply pitched approach ramps and vaulting through the air over as many as 20 cars or 14 Greyhound buses before landing safely on descent ramps as far as 150 feet from the takeoff point.
But it was some of his defeats that won him his greatest fame -- slamming to the pavement in a Caesars Palace crash that left him in a coma for a month and falling into an Idaho gorge in a failed attempt to leap across the 1,700-foot-wide Snake River Canyon on a specially designed “skycycle.”
Despite repeated accidents that cost him a total of more than three years in hospitals, Knievel once told the Wall Street Journal that there was only one incident that prompted him to drop a stunt from his repertoire.
He said he used to stand in front of a motorcycle speeding directly toward him, jumping spread-eagle at the last second as the cycle and its rider flashed beneath him.
In 1965, in Barstow, he didn’t jump quite high enough. The motorcycle, going about 60 mph, hit him square in the groin.
“A highway patrolman covered my head with a blanket,” Knievel said. “He thought I was dead. So did I.”
Knievel was laid up for more than a month, but he came back for more. Glib, shrewd, arrogant and charming, he promoted himself and his dangerous pursuits so successfully that Evel Knievel emerged as a millionaire and a household name in the 1960s and ‘70s.
At a time when the nation was still struggling with the effects of the Vietnam War and Watergate, Knievel became an iconic American hero figure in his tight-fitting, red-white-and-blue jumpsuit. His image was used to market motorcycles, crash helmets, Halloween costumes and candy. Two movies and several television programs were based on his exploits.
“America was down on its ass when I came along, and it needed somebody who was truthful and honest, somebody who would spill blood and break bones and suffer brain concussions, someone who wasn’t phony,” he said without a trace of modesty.
Robert Craig Knievel was born to Ann Keaugh Knievel and her husband, car dealer Robert Edward Knievel, in Butte, Mont., on Oct. 17, 1938. His parents separated when he was 6, and he moved a few blocks to the home of his grandparents.
“When I was a kid, the main activity was to go up and throw rocks at the whores, bang on the doors and have the pimps chase us down the street,” Knievel said in a New Yorker magazine interview. “When I was 8, I saw Joey Chitwood’s Auto Daredevils at Clark Park, in Butte. A guy jumped a motorcycle over a car. That night, I stole a motorcycle from a neighbor.”
By the time he entered high school, Knievel was well known to Butte police.
“I got into a lot of trouble,” he told Esquire magazine. “Probably it all started with stealing hubcaps, and then a little more trouble all the time until, pretty soon, you’re snatching purses and robbin’ places and doing things you shouldn’t be doing.”
Along the way, he picked up his nickname, Evel. There were conflicting accounts, even by him, of how that happened. But the bottom line is that someone, perhaps he, started calling him “Evil,” and he changed the I to an E to make the whole thing more distinctive.
The trim, 180-pound 6-footer was a good athlete. After dropping out of school in 1956, he won a regional ski-jumping competition, pole-vaulted more than 14 feet during a short stint in the Army, played briefly with the Charlotte (N.C.) Clippers of the Eastern Hockey League and started, managed and starred on his own semi-pro hockey team in Butte.
Knievel married his high school sweetheart, Linda Joan Bork, in 1959.
He was employed for a while as a hunting guide and an insurance salesman. And by his own, unsubstantiated accounts, he also worked successfully as a con man, an armed robber, a car thief and a safecracker.
“I robbed so many safes in Oregon that one of the newspapers said it looked like somebody was dropping bombs through the roofs,” he told Esquire.
If he did, he never got caught. And he said that after an armed robbery during which he beat a man, he had a change of heart.
“I got away with it, but it’s not the right way of life,” he said in a Sports Illustrated interview. “I want to be good to people.”
Knievel opened a Honda motorcycle dealership in Moses Lake, Wash., in 1965, hyping sales by offering a $100 discount to anyone who could beat him at arm wrestling. That same year, he started Evel Knievel’s Motorcycle Daredevils.
“We had a traveling show,” he told the New Yorker. “I’d do five or six stunts -- ride through fire walls, jump over boxes of live rattlesnakes and land between two chained mountain lions, get towed down a drag strip at 200 mph.”
Emboldened by his successes, he wrote Stuart Udall, then secretary of the Interior, asking for permission to leap the Grand Canyon on a winged, jet-powered motorcycle. Udall “did not share my enthusiasm,” Knievel said.
Undaunted by the turndown, Knievel kept mounting high-powered motorcycles and jumping over things -- 10 cars, then 12, then 16. On Jan. 1, 1968, he attempted to leap 141 feet over the fountains in front of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
The takeoff went all right and he cleared the fountains, but when he landed, the motorcycle skidded and he tumbled end over end across a parking lot, suffering multiple fractures of the hip, pelvis, legs and one arm. He didn’t regain consciousness for 31 days.
“Broken legs and arms mean nothing to me anymore,” he later told the Journal. “It only hurts for a while.”
In February 1971, he jumped 19 cars and cleared 150 feet. Not long afterward, he jumped 20. Thousands paid to watch him do it.
“When you see me make the jump, you’re just as scared as I am,” he told Esquire. “When I make it, you’re just as glad.”
With the jumps, personal appearances and product endorsements, Knievel was making pretty good money. His fingers were barnacled with diamonds. He drove a Rolls-Royce. He owned a Learjet. He lived, most of the time, in a gaudily painted tractor-trailer rig, complete with a bar, lounge, bedroom, dressing room and space in the back for his motorcycles and jumping ramps.
Life was good, but he still wanted to jump a canyon. And if officials wouldn’t let him do it on public land, he’d do it on private land, where no one could stop him. To that end, he purchased some property along the 400-foot-deep Snake River Canyon, just outside Twin Falls, Idaho.
On Sept. 8, 1974, as about 40,000 spectators who’d paid $25 apiece looked on from a nearby bluff and thousands more watched on closed-circuit television in theaters across the nation, Knievel blasted off a 108-foot-long takeoff ramp on his steam-propelled Sky Cycle X-2.
“The witless Knievel is titillating a barbaric appetite for treating violent death as a spectator sport,” columnist George F. Will wrote. “Like pornography, the event is brutalizing, anti life.”
A parachute opened prematurely, slowing the cycle on takeoff, and Knievel made it less than halfway across the canyon.
Buoyed by the parachute, he and the cycle sank slowly down onto a brush-covered slope on the near shore. He suffered a few scratches, and the event didn’t make as much money as he’d hoped, but newspapers and television stations around the world covered the jump.
The publicity helped generate crowds for subsequent stunts.
In May 1975, he tried to leap over 13 double-decker buses at London’s Wembley Stadium. He cleared the buses but crashed on landing, crushing his pelvis. Five months later, he cleared 14 Greyhound buses in Ontario, Canada.
In 1976, while practicing for a jump over a tank full of live sharks in Chicago, he crashed, suffering a concussion and breaking both arms. For the first time, a bystander was hurt, losing an eye. And for Knievel, that was the beginning of the end.
He made a few more jumps, but he was wearing out his welcome, and the public wasn’t much interested.
In 1977, he served five months and 22 days in the Wayside Honor Rancho near Castaic for smashing the left arm of television executive Sheldon Saltman with a baseball bat. Knievel, utterly unrepentant, told the judge he did it because the uncomplimentary book Saltman had written about him was a “filthy lie.”
By 1981, Knievel’s son Robbie had taken over the daredevil act. Evel was drinking hard and suffering from depression. His wife divorced him. Saltman won a $12.75-million judgment against him, and most of Knievel’s financial assets were gone.
“If God had wanted you to hang on to money, he’d have put handles on it, so you could carry it around like a suitcase,” he told Entertainment Weekly.
Knievel bounced back in the 1990s, sobering up and finding work doing more advertising endorsements. Television rediscovered him, airing several whatever-happened-to pieces. In 2000, he was remarried, to Krystal Kennedy, a woman less than half his age.
But time was taking its toll. Hepatitis C, contracted from one of his many blood transfusions, claimed his liver, and he had a transplant.
His frequently fractured legs led first to a cane, then to a walker. He came down with diabetes. He had a hip replacement and his spine was fused. His arms were so crippled that he needed help putting on a belt.
But Knievel was still thinking big. As late as 2003, at age 64, he was talking about making another jump, “further than I jumped at Caesars Palace.”
This fall, Knievel was the subject of a stage musical, “Evel Knievel: The Rock Opera” at a small Los Angeles theater.
In July 2004, he told the San Antonio Express-News that he had no regrets about his life.
“If the world had more people like me, it would be a more interesting place,” he said.
In addition to his partner, Krystal -- they were married in 1999 and divorced a few years later but remained together -- and his son Robbie, Knievel is survived by another son, Kelly; two daughters, Tracey and Alicia; 10 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
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