AT THIS remove,
nearly 30 years after he jumped over his last bus (or canyon or aquarium or
whatever), it's difficult to understand just what Evel Knievel's appeal ever
was. First of all, to judge from his many obituaries (he died of idiopathic
pulmonary fibrosis? Not wear and tear?), it appears he was not all that good at
the craft of daredevilry. His curriculum vitae, running to many boxes of X-ray
film, actually predicted a high likelihood of disaster when it comes to the job
of spanning cars and fountains with a motorcycle. To have broken as many bones
as he did, perhaps 40 ("Not every bone in my body," he once told me.
"That's a common misconception"), suggests he might have lived even
longer (wait! he lived to 69?) had he remained in an original employ—mining
copper in the Anaconda.
popularity was undeniable, breathtaking even. By escalating simple childhood
stunts into the realm of near-certain morbidity (genius!), he achieved a fame,
at least recognition, that not even today's superstars could ever enjoy.
Michael Jordan, Alex Rodriguez or Tom Brady are niche players when compared
with Knievel in his day. Coast-to-coast, Americans, every one of them, no
matter their preference for this sport or that, recognized the sheer fun of a
man making poor decisions, his life in the balance. Evel's jumping over a shark
tank? Ratings soared. His Wide World of Sports appearances were national events
in the '70s.
preference for cartoonery was just being felt back then, and the sight of a man
draped in an American flag (asbestos, to be sure), soaring impossible distances
on a Harley-Davidson XR-750, was money. Well, it wasn't the distances that
counted. Starting with a stunt that required him to jump 40 feet of parked cars
and a box of rattlesnakes (which he naturally crunched, freeing the reptiles),
Knievel immediately recognized the value of novelty over success. "I
knew," he said, "I could draw a big crowd jumping over weird
In other words,
Knievel was a more dedicated showman than he was motorcyclist. But that's all
that mattered. By the time he worked his way up to the Snake River Canyon jump
in 1974, his bona fides as a swaggering risk taker, if not a completely
competent stuntman, were accepted nationwide. Nearly seven years before, he'd
tried to jump the fountains in front of Caesars Palace, on live TV, and pretty
much come completely apart. You probably saw the footage on the TV news when
his death was announced; he came down wrong and flopped across the pavement,
rag-doll-like, for 165 feet until he ended up against a brick wall. He was in a
coma for a month afterward, having broken ribs, hips, pelvis and skull. At the
time, this was about all you had to do to become famous. And rich. For the
1,600-foot, rocket-powered jump over Idaho's Snake River, he got $6 million in
closed-circuit TV dough. Even though he pulled the rip cord suspiciously
quickly and floated harmlessly to the canyon floor.
But if he couldn't
almost die every time, he could come close. He erased whatever disappointment
his public had the next year when he took his act to Wembley Stadium in London
and broke his pelvis, vertebrae and hand trying to leap 13 double-deckers.
Then, to reassure his public further, he broke an arm and collarbone after
otherwise successfully avoiding 13 sharks. Weird stuff was the ticket.
success-to-failure ratio is not fairly represented in the above examples. He
cleared plenty of other weird stuff. But the life—3 1/2 years in hospitals, he
once calculated—was fairly harrowing, and it got to point that his pregame shot
of Wild Turkey was no longer enough to settle his nerves. "The feeling just
got worse," he told me, during a nostalgic swing through Caesars Palace
nearly 10 years ago. "Got so I couldn't pull the trigger."
But he had
inadvertently spawned a remarkable industry—Evel Knievel toys, lunch boxes,
pinball machines—that grew well beyond his feats. He was the first sports hero
to translate serial surgery into an income stream. Of course, even that was at
risk with Knievel, and by the time he had whacked a former publicist upside the
head with a baseball bat in 1977 (and was sentenced to six months in prison),
he had forfeited most of his 16 boats, houses and mink coats. The
diamond-encrusted walking stick filled with Wild Turkey? Gone. Also, more to
the point, the public's goodwill. "Those were a bad 10 years," he told
me. "Made $60 million, spent 61." Let his nation down.
Oddly, though, he
came out of that richer and just as beloved as he had been before. And in the
'90s his endorsement success, riding that wave of nostalgia in part, restored
him to solvency and then some. It was one landing he nailed. When I rambled
with him in Las Vegas (by then he was reduced to light beer, pending a liver
transplant), he was cashing weekly $10,000 checks for pain-relief gizmos (the
Stimulator, remember?), fielding film offers, living the life, enjoying the
everlasting residue of those botched jumps. It was mystifying until you think
about it, but America, perhaps secretly, admires conviction over common sense,
imagination beyond any grasp of reality, resiliency past adult duty. We like
winners, sure, but every once in a while, give us a guy like Evel, somebody
willing, at whatever cost, to tease all that fun out of failure.
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