Book Review: ‘Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel’ by Leigh Montville

Special to the Los Angeles Times


The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend

Leigh Montville

Doubleday: 400 pp., $27.50

For men of a certain age, Evel Knievel is a touchstone of innocence lost, vaguely held in the memory bank as an emblem of how easily and simply wonderment once came to a fan-boy of American sports.

In the 1970s, Knievel, the motorcycle daredevil clad in a white jumpsuit, flew over cars and buses and canyons (well, he had issues with the canyons) and became a branded entity on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” on which he would appear 17 times in 10 years, and drew the highest ratings in the show’s history (some 55 million viewers) when he jumped over 14 Greyhound buses at the Kings Island Amusement Park near Cincinnati in 1975.


The jump was one of his patented comebacks; earlier that year Knievel attempted to jump 13 single-decker buses at London’s Wembley Stadium. He didn’t make it (he always seemed to hit that last bus or van or safety ramp) and suffered, among other things, a broken right hand, a compressed fracture of the fourth and fifth vertebrae in the lower part of his spine, and a fractured left pelvis.

“The question always was about how many bones he had broken,” Leigh Montville writes in his engrossing new biography, “Evel.” “The answers varied — at the end of his career, he would settle on 37 major bones, 14 operations.”

There are resonances in revisiting a kooky legend like Knievel, not least of which is that when Knievel was big, televised sport consisted of a choice-less three broadcast networks. Whatever “Wide World” served up each week came with a certain arch, unchecked authority.

Was Knievel, who died at age 69 in 2007, an athlete? “Evel” doesn’t debate this (it’s unclear whether the daredevil even exercised). But his stunts deserve a place in the pantheon of televised sports as an iconic kind of cinéma vérité that played at the intersection of physical daring and Romanesque voyeurism.

“He was a creation of network television,” Montville quotes boxing promoter Bob Arum as saying. “It was totally non-purposeful …, totally crap. That was what he was. That was what that was. There’s always a market for that.”

But that assessment seems uncharitable if understandable coming from Arum, who was exposed to Knievel’s anti-Semitic remarks while promoting the infamous Skycycle jump attempt over Idaho’s Snake River Canyon on Sept. 8, 1974.

The Snake River episode — lavishly recounted by Montville over several chapters, the tension building alongside the hijinks — encapsulated Knievel’s strange magnetism and the buzz he could create. There was chaos at the campgrounds (portable toilets set ablaze, free sex), hubris (Knievel jetting around in a Lear to promote the event, drinking, carousing and shooting his mouth off), issues with the vehicle (“Work on the Skycycle, the rocket, had hit a snag …”) and a dud climax, Knievel’s parachute deploying before the rocket left the launch track.

Knievel, in the end, drifted down, down, down to the canyon floor. That morning, President Gerald R. Ford had pardoned former President Richard M. Nixon. America pardoned Knievel, but only to a point. The daredevil had committed what we now know is a cardinal sin of televised sport: He failed to produce a highlight.

Montville, a former Boston Globe columnist and Sports Illustrated staffer who has tackled sports legends known (“Ted Williams”) and less known (“The Mysterious Montague”), has an obvious passion for the era of sports that would abide a unique character like Knievel, who by various accounts was a hard-drinking, abusive lout, his swagger and high living always this side of unattractive or pathetic.

In the pre-Enlightenment era of sports watching (no strength-of-schedule rationalism or “fantasy impact stats,” no quest for absolute certainty brought on by the referee’s announcement, “The play on the field is under review”), fans and sports journalism were more enamored with storytelling, real or manufactured. This raconteur-ish approach fits “Evel” even if it muddles the journalism with the provenance of quotes at times sacrificed in the interest of pacing. Of course, much about Knievel veers into the apocryphal. When actor George Hamilton was engaged to portray Knievel in a biopic, Montville writes, “Hamilton interviewed a bunch of the young emerging screenwriters, including George Lucas and Paul Schraeder and maybe even Spielberg.”

“Maybe even” Spielberg? According to Hamilton’s own autobiography, quoted here, Knievel, angered by what he’d been told was a critical portrayal of him, summoned Hamilton to his Hollywood motel and ordered the actor to read the script at gunpoint.

Ah, the ‘70s, not just in Hollywood but at the Southern California racing ovals of Indio, Gardena and Ontario. As Montville hints, Knievel exuded a kind of “Boogie Nights” aura — “his own musk smell,” as one promoter puts it — wherever he went as a star (he liked Filthy McNasty’s on the Sunset Strip).

Despite all that, he was never far, literally or figuratively, from his Butte, Mont., roots; Knievel had married a Butte girl and kept a home and family there after he got famous. Born Robert Craig Knievel, he had been “a classic semi-orphan Butte kid” who was left with his paternal grandparents as a child, in a hard place where the predominant activities were copper mining and drinking. Knievel went from high-school dropout to inveterate thief and shakedown artist to regional salesman for the Combined Life Insurance Co., out of Chicago.

This last stop, as Montville theorizes, is where Knievel really found himself — as an acolyte of Combined’s founder, W. Clement Stone, whose principles included, “Aim for the moon. If you miss, you may hit a star.”

In Knievel’s case, he became a star by missing.

Montville wisely whips through the many jumps Knievel successfully made (“drunk, with his right hand taped to the handlebars, he flawlessly cleared eighteen Dodge colts and one Dodge van...”), while lingering on the behind-the-scenes bacchanals and bone-crushing postscripts of his failures.

It was by crashing (the daredevil eschewed things like speedometers) that Knievel’s life choice could seem meta, even if he was more cowboy than ironist. At the outset of the book Montville posits Knievel as some sort of counter to the counterculture figure at a time of cynicism over Watergate and Vietnam. Into this maelstrom entered this “young Elvis dropped from a previous generation of pegged-pants, duck’s-ass rebellion into the Age of Aquarius, more about trouble and excitement than peace and love.”

But “Evel” is not a cultural study of an icon (lacking an examination of Knievel’s comedic doppelganger, Bob “Super Dave Osborne” Einstein),as it is a wild ride on the back of Knievel’s cycle. “I don’t know if I’m an athlete, a daredevil, a hoax, or just a nut,” Knievel said at the press conference to announce the Snake River Canyon jump. “But when I make that jump, I’ll be competing against the toughest opponent of all — and that’s death.”

In that sense Knievel went undefeated in his sport. His last nationally televised stunt was in prime time on CBS in January 1977, in Chicago’s International Amphitheatre.

It was winter. Knievel’s obstacle was a tankful of supposedly “man-eating sharks” (this was months before Fonzie popularized the stunt on the sitcom “Happy Days,” sending a metaphor into our future lexicon).

The shark tank show was a highly rated fiasco. Knievel crashed doing a practice run, and half of the sharks shipped in for the stunt ended up dying, Montville reports.

Evel survived, of course.

Brownfield is a New York-based writer and critic.