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The Man Who Jumped Over Stuff
Richard Hoffer
December 10, 2007
He didn't have a great track record—but that was part of Evel Knievel's allure
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December 10, 2007

The Man Who Jumped Over Stuff

He didn't have a great track record—but that was part of Evel Knievel's allure

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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.

Still, his 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.

This country's 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 stuff."

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.

The 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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