"Evel Knievel? Is he still alive?"
That's the question I'm almost always asked whenever someone learns that I wrote a biography of the infamous daredevil. Until last Friday, when he died at age 69, my stock answer had always been, "Yeah. Barely."
Evel cheated death for longer than I've been alive. I was born in 1969 and grew up in suburban Kent, Wash., within earshot of Seattle International Raceway, where Evel performed a couple of times in 1970. He often said that his first public motorcycle jump took place five years earlier, a publicity stunt cooked up to promote his Moses Lake, Wash., Honda dealership. He supposedly soared over a pair of mountain lions before crashing into a crate filled with hundreds of rattlesnakes. That sounds plausible, at least for him. But in my years of Knievel research, I have yet to find any film, news clippings, photos, or credible eyewitnesses to confirm that this actually happened.
It's only natural for myths to attach themselves to a man who jumps over stuff on a motorcycle. But Evel never trusted that idea. Driven by his egomaniacal tendencies, he preferred to help the mythmaking process along. Forty years ago this month, he flew over the gaudy fountains in front of the new Caesars Palace casino. Evel cleared the fountains but couldn't quite stick the landing. His body flung over his handlebars and slammed onto the pavement, breaking his pelvis, hip, and several ribs. He spent the next 37 days in the hospital.
In the following decades, he reported spending that lost month in a coma, a claim repeated in his New York Times obituary. When asked in 2002 by Sports Illustrated what a monthlong coma feels like, he shot back, in characteristically profane style: "How the fuck do I know? I was in a coma." But there's a duller reason that Evel didn't know a thing: The coma never happened. Shortly after the crash, Las Vegas Sun columnist Tom Diskin noted that the patient was "alert and restless." Diskin's interview was frequently interrupted by Evel's constant phone calls, as he was busy making plans to jump a canyon.
For lots of the daredevil's fans, the Evel legend took a hit in 1974, when he tried to jump Idaho's Snake River Canyon. Knievel attempted to clear the 1,600-foot-wide chasm not on a flying motorcycle, but in a small rocket. No sooner did Evel's "Sky-Cycle" blast off from the launch ramp than its parachutes deployed, hindering his ascent. The craft drifted to the canyon floor, its pilot unscathed. Those who hoped to see Evel succeed were disappointed, as were those who hoped to see him perish. Most everyone who paid to see the stunt—thousands at the canyon and the pay-per-view spectators at theaters across the country—felt cheated.
The one demographic that Evel didn't disappoint was children under the age of 8. As a 5-year-old watching ABC's Wide World of Sports, I found the whole thing—even the disappointing ending—pretty cool. I received Evel toys as Christmas presents and was inspired to attempt my own foolish bicycle stunts. I even sent Evel fan mail, which he replied to with an autographed photo: "To Steve! Happy Landings! Evel Knievel."
My Evel-mania peaked in 1976, when my dad took me to see him jump at the Seattle Kingdome. After Snake River, he had rebroken his pelvis trying to jump 13 buses at London's Wembley Stadium. In Seattle, he would jump only seven Greyhounds, having stated that he would no longer push himself to set new records. Public interest had abruptly cooled—the 64,000-seat Kingdome was maybe a quarter full. The jump itself was tame by Knievel standards, but I was thrilled. It was perhaps the greatest moment of my young life.
Three months later, my parents let me stay up late to watch Evel's final nationally televised performance, a live prime-time special from Chicago in which the star was scheduled to jump a shark-infested pool. Unfortunately, during an unscheduled practice jump that afternoon, he skidded off the landing ramp and crashed into a cameraman. Evel broke a collarbone and an arm, and claimed the cameraman lost an eye. (Not so. In researching my book, I found the guy had suffered only minor injuries.) At the end of the broadcast, when it came time for Evel's big jump, the program cut away to taped footage of his crash, and I went to bed in tears. Star Wars soon replaced Evel as my chief obsession, and my Knievel toys wound up at the local St. Vincent de Paul. Like the rest of America, I forgot about Evel Knievel and moved on.
Years later, in my 20s, I started up my own pop-culture fanzine, in which I reflected on my earlier adoration of Evel and re-examined him with an adult perspective. The project later evolved into a full-blown biography, and now an ongoing fan site. Along the way, I found that the superhero of my youth—the patriotic role model, the clean-and-sober family man—had a sordid side. He served time for beating up his press agent with a baseball bat. He was a raging alcoholic. He was an unrepentant philanderer. He was estranged from his wife and kids. He gambled heavily and evaded taxes. He was a con artist and a thief. He peddled paintings that he signed as his own creations, though they were actually frauds. He was arrested on suspicion of beating up his girlfriend, whom he later married.
As a kid, I was fascinated by Evel's stunts. As an adult, I've been fascinated by his attempts to court and prolong fame. At the height of his daredevilry, Knievel promoted himself to make his name grow and to make more money. As the crowds began to thin, he told tall tales to make the spotlight stay a little longer. As he began to fade in his last years, he continued to brag, embellish, and perpetuate myths about himself and his accomplishments—the distances he jumped, the number of bones he broke, the women he bedded, the heaps of money he made, his countless celebrity friends.
Evel's relentless self-promotion worked: He will be remembered for as long as prepubescent boys think it's cool to jump over stuff on a bike. I think, though, he would've preferred to make a flashier exit—a flaming wreck in front of a Vegas casino or a mushroom cloud at the bottom of a canyon. But Evel's end was more mundane. After suffering countless injuries during his career, wounds he sustained thanks to an unending compulsion to impress, he died at his home, of lung disease.