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Evel Knievel, The Man Who Invented A Sport

Evel Knievel

The greatest daredevil who ever lived is half-lying in an easy chair in a track suit, like Fidel in his hospital bed, struggling to breathe through a nose tube that's connected to an oxygen tank in the living room of his small condo in St. Petersburg, Florida. At 69, he is a gaunt man with a wispy puff of white hair and taut, shiny, pale skin stretched over his high cheekbones. But that doesn't mean he's about to take shit from his bookie, who's on the phone. "You telling me I didn't take the Patriots?" Evel Knievel rasps. "I know who I took!"

Minutes later he takes another call, from a manwho  wants to "give" him a star on the Las Vegas Walk of Stars—for $15,000. "Not if I have to pay for it," he says firmly, then hangs up, exhausted. How preposterous that someone in Vegas would charge him for a star. This January, after all, marks the 40th anniversary of one of the city's greatest spectacles, his daring and disastrous motorcycle jump over the Caesars Palace fountain, the event that propelled him to super­stardom. He would go on to become one of the most famous men in the world. His motorcycle and riding costume are enshrined in the Smithsonian. A river is named after him, as is a biker convention in his hometown of Butte, Montana. When ABC listed its most-watched Wide World of Sports episodes, Evel Knievel specials placed 1st, 3rd, 7th, and 12th. No wonder he thinks Las Vegas, like everybody else, should pay for the right to use his name.

He is most famous for his death-defying motorcycle jumps and crashes, but mostly he's famous for being Evel Knievel, the man who invented a sport, and himself. At a time when extreme sports and reality TV are more popular than ever, few remember that he founded both and bled for it as he did so. He was one of the first self-promoted celebrities, the man who, like his friend Muhammad Ali, shamelessly pronounced himself "the Greatest." He redefined celebrity not as a means to an end but as a goal in itself. He inspired generations of fathers to say to their reckless sons, "Who do you think you are, Evel Knievel?" His godlike status makes it surreal to see him like this now, sucking up oxygen in God's Waiting Room. "I'm dying," he rasps. "This may be the last interview I ever do."

He's been dying for 42 years, first from his career, then from liver failure in the '90s, and now from a rare lung disease, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. "How much can a human body endure?" he asks. "My immune system's shot. The doctors gave me three years four years ago. I got this disease that's so rare there's no cure. I don't know of anybody else who had it except Marlon Brando." Which was always the point with Evel Knievel. He was always unique, and still is, awaiting death with a rare disease few other mortals ever had.

He created his image, and his life, out of the clay of Robert Craig Knievel, a wild kid from Butte, Montana. He was a good high school skier and hockey player, then a motorcycle racer, a bank robber, and—is it true?—a safecracker. "What do ya mean, ‘is it true?'" he snaps, "I can still crack a safe with one hand tied behind my back. I'm not proud of it. But I was always against society."

He became Evel Knievel in the mid-'60s when he asked a Norton motorcycle distributor named Bob Blair to sponsor him. Blair said he would, but only if he changed his name to Evil. Not eager to tempt God, he changed the i to an e. From that point forward, not even he would think of himself as Robert anymore. "It's who I am," he says. "I am Evel Knievel."

To help sell motorcycles, he began jumping over "weird things"—a box of snakes, a lion, a tank full of sharks. (For the record: The term "jump the shark" originated with him, not the Fonz.) "I was happy he'd finally found a job he liked to do," his wife, Linda—surely the most understand­ing woman in America—once said. When they divorced years later, she said, "He always thought there was something better out there and never stopped looking for it."

He began looking for longer and more dangerous jumps, too, until, by the late '60s, he was Evel Knievel, the greatest motorcycle daredevil the world had ever known, a man who was willing to jump over 13 double-decker buses, a 1,500-foot-wide canyon, the moon if he could find a rocket-propelled motorcycle powerful enough. He had balls the size of watermelons, which is why his fans loved him. "It's easy to be famous today," he says. "People pay a million dollars to be recognized, but nobody cares about them. They cared about me because I did things other men were afraid to do. That's why my fans identified with me. They were mostly working-class."

click image to enlarge

His fans were also drawn to him because of the possibility of a crash, broken bones, failure, and death. They sometimes booed when he succeeded, shouting out, "That was too easy!" and cheered when he crashed. "My failures had a lot to do with my fame," he admits. He once famously said, "I created Evel Knievel, and then he sort of got away from me."

He meant that he let his fans dictate what he did. "They always expected more," he says. So he gave it to them. Longer and more dangerous jumps: two cars, then 22 cars. It was said that during the height of his fame, grown men admired him, young boys wanted to be like him, and women wanted to sleep with him. He was tall and handsome in the country way, with prominent cheekbones and a high, swept-back pompadour, like a '70s lounge lizard. He wore a white leather costume with red-white-and-blue stars and stripes and a flowing cape-a little gay actually, but understandable since the idea came from his friend Liberace.

Evel was dangerous, hard-drinking (his poison: a beer, tomato juice, Wild Turkey concoction called a Montana Mary), and sexual, every women's bad-boy fantasy, which he embellished. He carried a .44 magnum and a gold-and-ebony hollowed-out cane with a sword in it. People wondered: Who was Evel Knie­vel real­ly? A flimflam artist, a crazy man, or a man of monumental courage? Maybe a bit of each.By the early '70s, he counted Elvis, Ali, and Steve McQueen as friends. Books were written about him. Three bad movies were made about his life. He's been featured in countless TV specials, and, Lord have mercy, this year Evel Knievel: The Rock Opera opened in Los Angeles to rave reviews.

Today Evel owns the rights to his name and image and is willing to put them on anything he can sell. He claims to have made $10 million over the past few years. To show me, he laboriously rises from his chair. Trailing his oxygen tube behind him like a tether to life, he shuffles toward his office, then suddenly gasps for breath. "You're standing on my tube," he mutters.

The office is a mess. Clothes strewn on a chair. Boxes piled high. Toys. Dolls. Caps. Tchotchkes everywhere. He points to a photograph: Evel in his white leather costume on a motorcycle while a slacker-looking kid in baggy shorts sits behind him, making a funny face, as if this posed picture with this fossil is a joke. Evel looks back over his shoulder, his eyes half-lidded, dismissive, a little threatening. "That's Tony Hawk," says Evel, "the skateboard champion. I know him and Mat Hoffman, the bicycle stunt kid. I'm the father to them all." He means he is the progenitor of all the extreme sports kids of today, the skateboarders who leap off walls, the actors who crash into walls in the Jackass movies, the contestants on Fear Factor. "He's a legend to all of us," says pro skateboarder Danny Way, who jumped the Great Wall of China in 2005. "We probably wouldn't have the opportunities we do without him. There wasn't a lot of history of people doing 100-foot jumps before him. The motorcycles weren't made for it. The ramps weren't made for it. And he went out and just did it."

Breathing heavily in little gasps, Evel shuffles back to his chair. "Things ain't easy, buddy," he says, struggling for breath. "It's a compliment to me that all those kids come up to me. I always knew how to draw a crowd." Evel drew his biggest crowds with three jumps, all of which failed spectacularly, beginning with his Caesars Palace fountain jump on New Year's Day, 1968. He cleared the foun­tain, but then his back wheel caught on the landing ramp, sending  him tumbling over his motorcycle, which then rolled over him. "It was my worst injury," he recalls. "I had a compound fracture of my left hip, broke my right wrist and left ankle, and had a severe concussion. I was unconscious 30 days. You know, I had a couple hundred jumps in my career, and I made most of them, but the ones they show over and over are the ones when I crashed."

Which is not quite the truth. His most famous jump, in 1974, was meant to be over a 1,500-foot-wide abyss known as the Snake River Canyon in Idaho. That day would be immortalized on film and in the press as one of the most hyped events in sports-and one of the biggest fiascos. Fifteen thousand people showed up for the jump. People went to theaters to watch it on closed-circuit television. Then three quarters of the way up his takeoff ramp, Evel's parachute prematurely deployed. He fluttered to the canyon floor below like the white petal of a flower.

He wasn't hurt, but his image as a fearless daredevil was. The headlines the following day read "Evel Knievel Fails to Die" (right alongside: "Ford Pardons Nixon"). The presumption was, if he was stupid enough to self-destruct, then he was obligated to go through with it. "The engineer made a mistake, and the chute deployed too soon," he says. "It was heartbreaking." When asked about the event's credibility, he fumes: "I was on the cover of Sports Illustrated! What more do you want?"

To redeem himself, Evel set up a jump over 13 buses in London's Wembley Stadium before a crowd of more than 70,000, for which he was paid $1 million. Like the Caesars jump, he cleared the buses but crashed on landing and suffered devastating injuries, including a crushed vertebra. Yet he managed to stand up afterward, wave to his fans, and say into a mike, "I will never, ever, ever, ever jump again. I never thought I was a failure unless I didn't try to get up after a crash," says Evel today. "Kids come up to me all the time and say, 'Once I was going through a really bad time, and I saw you crash and get up, and it inspired me.'"

Despite his Wembley proclamation, Evel made one last big jump, then retired. "I was tired of getting beat to death," he says. But why did he punish himself in the first place? "You can't ask a guy like me why," Evel snaps. "I wanted to fly through the air. I was a dare­devil, a performer. I loved the thrill, the money, the whole macho thing. All those things made me Evel Knievel. Sure, I was scared. You gotta be an asshole not to be scared. But I beat the hell out of death. It would all go by so fast, in a blur. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi. You're in the air for four seconds, you're part of the machine, and then if you make a mistake midair, you say to yourself, 'Oh, boy. I'm gonna crash,' and there's nothing you can do to stop it."

Evel spent the rest of the '70s drinking, carousing, chasing women-in general living up to his wild-man rep, which he bolstered by taking a baseball bat to a former publicist to settle a vendetta. For that offense he served almost six months in prison. "There were always 15 guys standing outside my cell for autographs," he says. "I liked all of them. They were just them and I was just me."

Once when Evel was on a work release detail with other cons, he hired 15 limousines to pick them all up in the morning and bring them back at night. When the warden saw cons getting into limousines, he had a fit. "Boy, he was pissed off," remembers Evel. "I told him, just because these guys were in jail didn't mean they were bad. I was just trying to get them to feel part of the system. He understood then." On the day of his release, inmates carried out Evel's footlockers for him.

Evel took a financial hit from the prison episode when he lost endorsements, and he began making noises about resuming his career, about wanting to jump out of an airplane at 40,000 feet without a parachute. "The state of Nevada stopped me," he says.

I ask Evel if he still thinks of himself as a tough guy. "Aw, I don't know," he responds. "I'm just me." He still keeps a .44 magnum, and he gets up and shows it to me. "I'd rather have men fear me more than like me. Fear and respect go a long way. If a guy likes you, that comes with it." He returns with a beer. "I was a bitter sunuvabitch when I was younger," he says. Which brings us to his son Robbie.

In his 40s, Kaptain Robbie Knievel is the greatest motorcycle daredevil of his day, but  Evel and Robbie have a strained relationship. Robbie says his father is jealous because he's successfully completed most of the jumps Evel failed at. He has not, however, attempted to jump the Snake River Canyon. "You don't see no long line of guys trying to jump that canyon, do you?" Evel cackles like an old crone.

Robbie has said he was the only member of the family who had the guts to stand up to his irascible father. "That's true," Evel says. "I admire him for that. Robbie's a better rider than I was. He started earlier, and he has better equipment. But I don't think any daredevils today, including Robbie, had to bite the bullet like I did. It's not so exciting to fans if there's a 90 percent chance you're gonna succeed."

In fact, Evel's publicity biography lists all his crashes proudly, while Robbie's mentions only "three sprained ankles." Robbie even pokes fun at his father in his recent Holiday Inn Express TV commercial. In it a motorcycle slams into a school bus. People come running, but the rider turns out to be a dummy. Robbie appears smiling, as if to say, "I wasn't dumb enough to crash." When a reporter asks if someone talked some sense into him, he says, "No, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night." The subtext: Evel Knievel is that dummy. "I got my own commercial," says Evel. "For a lunch box. It was on in a recent NFL game." No wonder the kid's been battling his old man all these years; the sunuvabitch never quits.

Before Evel says goodbye, he talks about how he found God a few months ago, in a hotel room in Daytona Beach. "All my life I was an atheist," he says. "I'd tell people I didn't believe Jesus could walk on water. Then something happened in Daytona. God spoke to me. He said, 'Robert, you got to stop tellin' people you don't believe in me. I been takin' care of you for years, watchin' over you. I done everything for you. And you go tell people you don't believe in me. You gotta stop it.'" Evel puts his hands over his face, then sobs, "I told God I'd never insult him again." So did St. Augustine, who also asked God to send him chastity. But Evel's not quite ready for that. Maybe later, when he's an old man.

Legendary daredevil Robert Craig "Evel" Knievel, Jr. was born October 17, 1938, and died November 30, 2007, at age 69. He reportedly suffered almost 40 broken bones during his career before retiring in 1980. Knievel had been ill for years after contracting Hepatitis C from a blood transfusion many years ago.

Pat Jordan. Evel Never Dies. Maxim [Print + Kindle] . December 2007.

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