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All About Evel
"I'm a jumping son-of-a-bitch. I'll jump anything."
He was not a rock 'n' roll star, cartoon character, religious figure, professional wrestler, writer, or politician. Nor was he famous for being an artist, comic book superhero, television personality, or movie star. He wasn't exactly an athlete either. Granted, he wore a few of these hats at various points throughout his career, but his fame primarily emanated from an obscure occupation which he made entirely his own. Perhaps no other pop culture figure outside these realms had an impact which resulted in global notoriety, generated millions of dollars in merchandise, inspired widespread imitation, and was a constant source of controversy. He was a genuine celebrity, and at the height of his career, he was one of the most talked-about men in America.
He was Evel Knievel, the King of the Stuntmen, the World's Greatest Daredevil, the Last Gladiator in the New Rome. He was a motorcycle daredevil, the motorcycle daredevil, whose hell-bent determination to leap a bike over cars, buses, trucks, animals, and even natural wonders entertained audiences for over a decade. Evel's stunts may not have been defining events in American history, though his significance as a major pop culture phenomenon cannot be denied. In his 1970s heyday, during a decade of excess in which an overblown rock act like KISS found a sizeable following through sheer preposterousness, Evel provided "family entertainment" while vacantly preaching old-fashioned values, greatly appealing to blue-collar, God-fearing, middle-American sensibilities. Especially when he crashed.
Some observers suggested that Evel's lowbrow act was a diversion from the social upheaval at the time, providing cheap thrills which didn't demand much thought. His conspicuous flag-waving ran counter to the Vietnam War protestors, his brand of chauvinism was railed against by the emerging feminist movement, and while he inadvertently embraced the counterculture's notion of free love, the clean living he espoused distanced him from the hippie "dope fiends" he loathed.
Evel asserted that his self-destructive stylings filled a national void: "America was down on its ass when I came along," he explained in a 1997 interview with Racer X online. "They needed somebody that was truthful and honest. They wanted what I did, someone who would spill blood and break bones and suffer brain concussions, someone that really hurt and that wasn't a phony. And I wasn't a phony. That's what they needed, that's all. And they pulled for me, because they pulled for the underdog. And I got hurt so bad, but yet I kept trying. I refused to lay down and die. I didn't quit, I always tried to get up. And America needed that worse than anything in the world."
Evel became one of the most-recognized public figures of the decade as a modern-day amalgamation of several familiar archetypes, including the aforementioned Roman gladiator. Like Kafka's Hunger Artist, Houdini the escape artist, and the thrillseekers who plunged over Niagara Falls, Evel drew attention to himself through his own ridiculously absurd pursuit. He was a throwback to several other daredevils of yore: circus performers such as the trapeze artists, high-wire walkers, lion tamers, fire-eaters, and human cannonballs, along with the alligator wrestlers, bullfighters, wing walkers, sword-swallowers, and flagpole sitters.
Some viewed him as an American folk hero like Buffalo Bill, an outlaw like Jesse James, a master of self-promotion like P.T. Barnum, or Peter Pan, the boy who never wanted to grow up. He also brought to mind Captain America, both Marvel Comics' patriotic superhero and Peter Fonda's Easy Rider, even if the only similarity between the two cyclists was their stars-and-stripes helmets. However, Evel often came crashing down like Icarus, the birdman of Greek mythology, whose wax-and-feather wings melted when he flew too close to the sun. Nevertheless, Evel is frequently mentioned among the most popular sports figures of the '70s, including Muhammad Ali and O.J. Simpson, and in a few, more praiseworthy cases, he is listed beside other twentieth-century American icons such as Babe Ruth, John Wayne, and Elvis Presley.
Evel often likened himself to the astronauts as well, viewing himself as a pioneer in the uncharted world of motorcycle jumping. "What I'm doing might make more of a contribution to man and society than, say, selling insurance," he told Sports Illustrated in 1968. "I'm not a stunt man. I'm not a daredevil. I'm... I'm an explorer."
The truth be told, a handful of other motorcycle daredevils performed before Evel rose to fame, though they were largely unknown. One notable exception was Steve McQueen, whose stunt-double leaped over a barbed-wire fence in 1963's The Great Escape. Yet it was Evel who single-handedly popularized this unique form of showbiz, finding his niche by introducing the concept of motorcycle jumping to the masses, and incidentally, helping to bring motorcycling as a whole further into the mainstream.
For his efforts, he became a self-made millionaire, and he watched as a spate of imitators followed in his skidmarks -- whether they be professionals, like his son Robbie, or simply admiring children attempting new tricks on their bicycles. He also became the world's most famous motorcyclist, and twenty years after his retirement, he continues his reign as the most famous daredevil in history.
Before Evel arrived on the scene, American motorcyclists were commonly perceived as a savage, beer-swilling outlaws. The stereotype was largely rooted in Marlon Brando's portrayal of the rebellious Johnny ("Whaddya got?") in 1954's The Wild One, and perpetuated by the genre of increasingly seedier biker films which followed. Evel tried to distinguish himself as a "good" motorcyclist from what he saw were the "bad" bikers, with their drugs, violence, anarchy, and all the other undesirable elements he felt that the public associated with them. He deliberately contrasted himself against the black-clad gangs with his white, star-spangled jumpsuit accessorized with a jaunty cape, in an attempt to project a wholesome public image. Though Evel seemingly crusaded to make motorcycling in general more acceptable, he was also an outlaw in his own particular style -- "out of step with society" as he liked to phrase it -- for which he made no apologies.
However, Evel's fame wasn't entirely built upon his All-American image, valiant showmanship, and a string of death-defying feats. Ironically, he gained far more recognition for the bone-shattering crashes he survived than for all of his successful jumps combined. A spectacular wipeout proved much more newsworthy than any safe landing, and even when he didn't crash, many of his landings were shaky, and few of his leaps could accurately be described as graceful. In a morbid sense, he would be unknown if each one of his stunts didn't offer the strong possibility of serious injury, or death.
Evel wisely capitalized on his audience's thirst for blood, first whetting their appetite in 1967 when he nearly killed himself attempting to fly over the Caesar's Palace fountains in Las Vegas. The master of disaster raised the stakes with a ludicrous plan to jump a motorcycle over the Grand Canyon in 1968, which resulted in a fizzled rocket ride to the bottom of the Snake River Canyon in 1974. Evel's ongoing flirtation with death and apparent appetite for self-destruction created a macabre public allure -- the attraction, quite simply, was that each jaw-dropping stunt he attempted might be his last, and he milked it for all it was worth.
Oddly enough, Evel bounced back after nearly every one of his crashes, as if all his smashups and extended hospital stays only made him stronger. Whoever coined the old "if at first you don't succeed" adage probably didn't have man with Evel's intense determination in mind. He was seemingly indestructible, wearing scar tissue like badges of courage, which begged the question: Why would this ostensibly sane man pursue such a risky profession? Was it simply for money, or was he driven by something deeper? A psychological craving for attention? A genetic predisposition? An addiction to adrenaline? A death wish? Maybe it was just Evel's special purpose, his calling, his raison d'être. He approached life in the spirit of mountaineer George Mallory, who, when asked why he so badly wanted to climb Mt. Everest, responded with the timeless quote, "Because it's there."
Evel's story only begins with the stunts themselves. All three major television networks featured him on various programs, and two Hollywood movies bore his famous name -- one being an action picture in which he starred as himself, and the other a film biography, chronicling his rise to fame from his youth in the tough mining town of Butte, Montana. Evel dropped out of high school and worked in the copper mines and at other odd jobs, both legal and illegal, before he became a full-time daredevil. While uneducated, he was intelligent, clever, and articulate, and once his career took off, he negotiated lucrative endorsement contracts with Harley-Davidson and several other major companies.
The sales of Knievel toys and related merchandise generated millions in revenues, affording him the riches he shamelessly flaunted -- diamond rings, fur coats, exotic cars, luxury yachts, private jets, a country club home, and his trademark, jewel-encrusted cane. He courted a legion of die-hard fans who paid good money to watch his shows and buy his products, some fully accepting his rhetoric as the gospel, which he always delivered with machismo and hubris. Many viewed him as a knight in shining leather, and in a few more fanatical instances, he was raised to a Christ-like status. "Why, he's the new messiah," one of his young followers proclaimed in the Chicago Tribune. "He's unkillable."
All the attention and money only fueled Evel's ravenous lust for life. He certainly did not while away his days in quiet desperation, but rather lived at full throttle, earnestly believing his own outrageous hype and playing the crash-and-burn persona to the hilt. The recklessness he displayed on his motorcycle spilled over into his checkered personal life, which involved hard drinking, high-stakes gambling, nonstop philandering, staggering financial problems, and a tendency towards violence. He engaged in physical clashes with the Hell's Angels, members of the press, his son Robbie, and even his own biographer, which landed him in prison for six months.
His name frequently arose on both sides of all kinds of lawsuits -- when he wasn't being taken to court himself, he frequently threatened legal action against others, poised to sue anyone at the drop of a helmet. When he finally hung up his leathers after fifteen years of motorcycle mayhem, on the verge of financial ruin with a near-crippled body, he quickly faded away. Decades later, the high times fully caught up with him. He needed a full hip replacement as a result of his multiple wipeouts, and a liver transplant, a result of the incessant booze. He received both within about a year of one another, and almost miraculously, Evel is still alive, weathering his early sixties.
Of course, any figure of his stature will have a fair share of critics. Evel was certainly regarded with much skepticism during his career, both by the media and the public in general. Though his fans considered him a hero, champion, and living legend, others merely dismissed him as an eccentric goofball on two wheels, amounting to nothing more than a novelty sideshow act, or a sort of glorified, white-trash performance artist. Some have called him an egomaniac, a hypocrite, a thief, and a thug. His sanity was often brought into question, as were his morals. His claims were challenged, his stunts panned, his character attacked, and he was cited as a bad influence on children.
Regardless, he regularly appeared in sports pages and magazines nationwide, as well as in other general-interest publications, yet some journalists were loath to call him an athlete -- his physical exertion was relatively minimal, and he didn't actually compete against anyone else. Evel arrogantly countered that he transcended mere sport: "I would like you to tell me if you can find a tougher opponent than mine. Because my opponent is death."
Still others have called him a compulsive liar. While the reality of Evel's life and career was astonishing in its own right, for some reason he felt the need to make it appear even more incredible. Evel routinely exaggerated the truth, whether about the distances he jumped, or the amount of money he made, or the attendance at his performances, or anything else. He was a great storyteller, more than willing to spin remarkable yarns about himself for anybody willing to listen. He told the same tales countless times to countless listeners over the years, whether to press rooms packed with reporters, or in personal interviews, or just to the guy on the next barstool, but he almost always used some degree of poetic license.
Giving him the benefit of the doubt, most of these stories were based in truth, but repeated over time, they were obviously embellished, likely the result of drunken bragging. The highly-quotable Evel always spoke bluntly, whether making outlandish boasts and nonsensical claims, delivering ad-lib homilies, tossing out red herrings, or simply being honest, yet he always strode a fine line between fact and fiction. Sports Illustrated's Robert F. Jones noted, "It has been said that in twenty minutes Evel can tell a reporter enough anecdotes about his early life to keep them busy for twenty years checking it out."
One telling piece of evidence was that his stories frequently contradicted one another. "Ask him a straight question and one will get 50 crooked answers," Jones further observed. For many incidents in Evel's past, he told conflicting versions of each one, apparently depending on his audience, or his mood at the time, or perhaps he was simply oblivious to the idea that anyone might actually be paying attention. For instance, he visited Washington in 1961 hoping to meet with President Kennedy to discuss a political matter. The meeting never happened, which he explained in several interviews. As the years went on, however, he started saying that he did in fact meet the President, and he even related a previously-unheard anecdote to accompany the claim.
Creating more confusion, the press repeatedly transcribed these embellished, contradictory stories verbatim, with little fact-checking, and irresponsibly reported them without any particular caveats. Unlike professional major league sports, most of Evel's performances were not uniformly documented on a national scale, but rather covered in smaller local publications whenever he came to town. Additionally, his cycle-jumping details were never officially recorded or maintained, as opposed to baseball statistics, Wall Street stocks, movie grosses, and television ratings. Whenever any local stories about Evel did make it into the papers nationwide, they were often carelessly treated as novelty items off the newswire. As a result, the spotty coverage and conflicting details culminated in an overall body of half-truths and misinformation.
In all fairness, many of his oral accounts can be neither verified nor disproved, even if their improbability alone makes them suspect. The only one who knows the entire truth is Evel himself, yet he's repeated these stories so frequently over the years, it seemed as though he really believes every word that comes out of his own mouth. Indeed, these exaggerations have taken on an almost mythical quality, but in many cases, that's exactly what they are -- nothing more than myths. The whole of Evel's life, as he has told it, has amounted to a series of episodes in what might best be described as the "Knievel Legend." Because of this, compiling an accurate, definitive, and thoroughly comprehensive portrait of the man is virtually impossible. The next best thing is to document the established facts, and prescribe the remainder with a grain of salt.
In any case, the story of Evel Knievel -- the man, the myth, the motorcycle-jumping maniac -- is one wild ride. That's how Evel liked it.
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Last updated on January 13, 2011.
© 2004-2011 Steve Mandich