I believe that this past November saw more celebrities pass than any month since I started A Shroud of Thoughts. The latest to pass was not an important figure in films, music, or literature, but he had an impact on pop culture in the Seventies nonetheless. Daredevil Evel Knievel died yesterday at the age of 69 after years of failing health from diabetes, pulmonary fibrosis, and hepatitis. Anyone alive in the Seventies will remember Knievel as the daring (some might say reckless) motorcyclist who jumped the fountains at Caesar's Palace and tried to jump the Snake River Canyon.
Evel Knievel was born Robert Knievel in Butte, Montana on October 17, 1938. His parents divorced when he was a child and he was raised by grandparents. As a child he saw the Joie Chitwood Auto Daredevil Show when it came to Butte, the event which would lead to his chosen profession as an adult. In and out of trouble while he was growing up, Knievel eventually found himself spending the night in jail. Another inmate there, William Knofel, was called "Awful Knofel." Robert Knievel was then called "Evil Knievel." He later changed the "i" to an "e" because he thought it looked better.
Knievel served in the United States Army as a paratrooper. He later played semi-professional hockey with the Charlotte Clippers of the Eastern Hockey League. Having ridden motorcycles since he was very young, Knievel finally took up motorcycle racing. By 1965 he was co-owner of a motorcycle shop in Moses Lake, Washington. As a publicity stunt he jumped his motorcycle over parked cars, a box of rattlesnakes, and a mountain lion. The stunt drew 1000 people. It was then that Knievel decided he could make a living performing motorcycle stunts. He formed Evel Knievel’s Motorcycle Daredevils that same year and they toured the West. Eventually, Knievel would go solo, and it was in 1967 that Knievel performed the stunt that would make him famous. On December 31, 1967 he jumped the fountains at Caesar's Palace. The jump ended with a crash in which Knievel was injured, but a film of the stunt was broadcast on ABC's Wide World of Sports. By 1968 Knievel was regularly performing motorcycle stunts and earning around $25,000 for each one.He was also setting world records, getting his name several times in Guinness Book of Records. It was in 1972 that he attempted his biggest stunt ever, jumping the Snake River Canyon in Idaho. Using a rocket powered motorcycle to perform the stunt, Knieval made it all the way across the canyon, only to have the bike's parachute pull the motorcycle down into the canyon. Fortunately for Knievel, he survived the stunt with only minor injuries.
The early to mid Seventies saw Knievel at the height of his career. At least two feature films were based upon him. In 1971 there was biopic made called Evel Knievel, starring George Hamilton in the lead role. In 1977 Knievel played himself in Viva Knievel. An unsold television pilot, Evel Knievel, aired on CBS in 1974. That same year Ideal Toy Company released an action figure based on Knieval, complete with motorcycle and other accessories. He was a frequent guest on talk shows of the time. A pinball machine even bore his name.
In the end it was Knievel himself who put an end to his own success. In 1977 the book Evel Knievel on Tour by Knievel's former agent, Sheldon Saltman, was published. Knievel viewed Saltman's book as an attack on his character, and for that reason Knievel attacked Saltman with a baseball bat, breaking Saltman's left arm. On October 24, 1977, Knievel was sentenced for assault and battery to three years probation and six months in a county jail. The attack on Saltman essentially ruined Knievel's career. Not only did his various merchandising deals dry up, but he found it difficult to book performances as well. As the years passed, Knievel would meet with more trouble from the law. In 1983 he ran afoul of the IRS, who claimed he owed $1.6 million in taxes from his various jumps. In 1986 he solicited a policewoman in Kansas City, Missouri and had to pay a $200 fine. In 1994, a domestic disturbance call in California resulted in the discovery of several firearms which resulted in weapons violations. Knievel had to perform 200 hours of community service.
Sheldon Saltman said of Evel Knievel that "He was a true daredevil, but he basically was not a good human being." Given Knievel's attack on Saltman and his various legal infractions, it is hard to argue with Saltman's statement. That having been said, it must be pointed that he did eventually straighten up his act and even found religion. Besides which, it remains that Knievel was a great stunt motorcyclist, perhaps the greatest of all time. He not only performed spectacular stunts, but he set many records. He still holds a record for having broken 35 bones. Regardless of his personal life, Knievel left his mark in the history of motorcycle stunts. And he also had a huge impact on pop culture. He inspired action figures, movies, pinball machines, and even songs. It is even possible that he may partially be the inspiration behind the Marvel Comics character Ghost Rider. I rather suspect Knievel will be remembered for a long time to come.