Robert Craig "Evel" Knievel (October 17, 1938 – November 30, 2007) was an American motorcycle daredevil, an entertainer famous in the United States and elsewhere between the late 1960s and early 1980s. Knievel's nationally televised motorcycle jumps, including his 1974 attempt to jump Snake River Canyon at Twin Falls, Idaho, represent four of the twenty most-watched ABC's Wide World of Sports events to date. His achievements and failures, including his record 433 broken bones, earned him several entries in the Guinness Book of World Records.
His son Robbie Knievel is also an accomplished motorcycle daredevil.
Knievel ended high school after sophomore year and got a job in the copper mines with the Anaconda Mining Company as a diamond drill operator . He was then promoted to surface duty where he drove a large earth mover. Knievel was dismissed when he made the earth mover do a motorcycle-type wheelie and drove it into Butte's main power line. The incident left the city without electricity for several hours. Idle, Knievel began to find himself in more and more trouble around Butte. After a police chase in 1956 in which he crashed his motorcycle, Knievel was taken to jail on a charge of reckless driving. When the night jailer came around to check the roll, he noted Robert Knievel in one cell and William Knofel in the other. Knofel was well known as "Awful Knofel" ("awful" rhyming with "Knofel") so Knievel began to be referred to as Evel Knievel ("Evel" rhyming with "Knievel"). He chose this misspelling because of his last name and because he didn't want to be considered "evil."
Always looking for new thrills and challenges, Knievel participated in local professional rodeos and ski-jumping events, including winning the Northern Rocky Mountain Ski Association Class A Men's ski jumping championship in 1957. During the late 1950s, Knievel joined the United States Army. His athletic ability allowed him to join the track team where he was a pole vaulter. After his army stint, Knievel returned to Butte where he met and married his first wife, Linda Joan Bork.
Shortly after getting married, Knievel started the Butte Bombers, a semi-pro hockey team. To help promote his team and earn some money, he convinced the 1960 Olympic Czechoslovakian hockey team to play the Butte Bombers in a warm-up game to the Olympics. Knievel was ejected from the game minutes into the third period and left the stadium. When the Czechoslovakian officials went to the box office to collect the expense money the team was promised, workers discovered the game receipts had been stolen. The U.S. Olympic Committee wound up paying the Czechoslovakian team's expenses to avoid an international incident.
After the birth of his first son, Kelly, Knievel realized that he needed to come up with a new way to support his family financially. Using the hunting and fishing skills his grandfather had taught him, Knievel started the Sur-Kill Guide Service. He guaranteed that if a hunter employed his service and paid his fee, they would get the big game animal they wanted or he would refund their money. Business was very good until game wardens realized that Knievel was taking his clients into Yellowstone National Park to find prey. As a result of this poaching, Knievel had to end the new business venture.
During December 1961, Knievel, who was learning about the culling of elk in Yellowstone Park, decided to hitchhike from Butte to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness and to have the elk relocated to areas where hunting was permitted. After his conspicuous trek (he hitchhiked with a 54-inch wide rack of elk antlers and a petition with 3,000 signatures), he presented his case to Representative Arnold Olsen, Senator Mike Mansfield, and Kennedy administration Interior Secretary Stewart Udall. As a result of his efforts, the slaughter was stopped, and the animals have since been regularly captured and relocated to areas of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.
After returning home from Washington, Knievel decided to stop committing crime. He joined the motocross circuit and had moderate success, but he still couldn't make enough money to support his family. During 1962, Knievel broke his collarbone and shoulder in a motocross accident. The doctors said he couldn't race for at least six months. To help support his family, he switched careers and sold insurance for the Combined Insurance Company of America, working for W. Clement Stone. Stone suggested that Knievel read Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, a book that Stone wrote with Napoleon Hill. Knievel credited much of his success to Stone and his book.
Knievel was successful as an insurance salesman (even selling insurance policies to several institutionalized mental patients) and wanted recognition for his efforts. When the company refused to promote him to vice-president after a few months on the job he quit. Wanting a new start away from Butte, Knievel moved his family to Moses Lake, Washington. There, he opened a Honda motorcycle dealership and promoted motocross racing. During the early 1960s, it was difficult to promote Japanese imports. People still considered them inferior to American built motorcycles, and there was lingering resentment from World War II, which had ended fewer than 20 years earlier. Once, Knievel offered a $100 discount to anybody who could beat him at arm wrestling. Despite his best efforts the store eventually closed.
After the closure of the Moses Lake Honda dealership, Evel went to work for Don Pomeroy at his motorcycle shop in Sunnyside, Washington. It is here where Jim Pomeroy, a well known motocross racer taught Knievel how to do a "wheelie" and ride while standing on the seat of the bike.
Knievel realized to make any amount of real money he would need to hire more performers, stunt coordinators and other personnel so that he could concentrate on the jumps. With little money, he went looking for a sponsor and found one in Bob Blair, a distributor for Norton Motorcycles. Blair offered to provide the needed motorcycles, but he wanted the name changed from the Bobby Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils Thrill Show to Evil Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils. Knievel didn't want his image to be that of a Hells Angels rider, so he convinced Blair to allow him to use Evel instead of Evil.
The debut of Knievel and his daredevils was on January 3, 1966, at the National Date Festival in Indio, California. The show was a huge success. Knievel received several offers to host the show after their first performance. The second booking was in Hemet, California, but was canceled due to rain. The next performance was on February 10, in Barstow, California. During the performance, Knievel attempted a new stunt where he would jump, spread eagle, over a speeding motorcycle. Knievel jumped too late and the motorcycle hit him in the groin, tossing him fifteen feet into the air. He was placed in the hospital as a result of his injuries. When released, he returned to Barstow to finish the performance he had started almost a month earlier.
Knievel's daredevil show broke up after the Barstow performance because injuries prevented him from performing. After recovering, Knievel started traveling from small town to small town as a solo act. To get ahead of other motorcycle stunt people who were jumping animals or pools of water, Knievel started jumping cars. He began adding more and more cars to his jumps when he would return to the same venue in order to get people to come out and see him again. Knievel hadn't had a serious injury since the Barstow performance, but on June 19 in Missoula, Montana, he attempted to jump twelve cars and a cargo van. The distance he had for takeoff didn't allow him to get up enough speed. His back wheel hit the top of the van while his front wheel hit the top of the landing ramp. Knievel ended up with a severely broken arm and several broken ribs. The crash and subsequent stay in the hospital were a publicity windfall.
With each successful jump, the public wanted him to jump one more car. On May 30, 1967, Knievel successfully cleared sixteen cars in Gardena, California. Then he attempted the same jump on July 28, 1967, in Graham, Washington, where he had his next serious crash. Landing his cycle on a panel truck that was the last vehicle, Knievel was thrown from his bike. This time he suffered a serious concussion. After a month, he recovered and returned to Graham on August 18 to finish the show; but the result was the same, only this time the injuries were more serious. Again coming up short, Knievel crashed, breaking his left wrist, right knee, and two ribs.
While in Las Vegas, Nevada, to watch Dick Tiger successfully defend his WBA and WBC light heavyweight titles at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Nov. 17, 1967, Knievel first saw the fountains at Caesars Palace and decided to jump them. To get an audience with the casino's CEO Jay Sarno, Knievel created a fictitious corporation called Evel Knievel Enterprises and three fictitious lawyers to make phone calls to Sarno. Knievel also placed phone calls to Sarno claiming to be from ABC-TV and Sports Illustrated inquiring about the jump. Sarno finally agreed to meet Knievel and the deal was set for Knievel to jump the fountains on December 31, 1967. After the deal was set, Knievel tried to get ABC to air the event live on Wide World of Sports. ABC declined, but said that if Knievel had the jump filmed and it was as spectacular as he said it would be, they would consider using it later.
Knievel used his own money to have actor/director John Derek produce a film of the Caesars' jump. To keep costs low, Derek used his then-wife Linda Evans as one of the camera operators. It was Evans who filmed Knievel's famous landing. On the morning of the jump, Knievel stopped in the casino and placed his last 100 dollars on the blackjack table (which he lost), stopped by the bar and had a shot of Wild Turkey and then headed outside where he was joined by several members of the Caesars staff, as well as two scantily clad showgirls. After doing his normal pre-jump show and a few warm up approaches, Knievel began his real approach. When he hit the takeoff ramp, he felt the motorcycle unexpectedly decelerate. The sudden loss of power on the takeoff caused Knievel to come up short and land on the safety ramp which was supported by a van. This caused the handlebars to be ripped out of his hands as he tumbled over them onto the pavement where he skidded into the Dunes parking lot. As a result of the crash, Knievel suffered a crushed pelvis and femur, fractures to his hip, wrist and both ankles and a concussion that kept him in a coma for 29 days. After his crash and recovery Knievel was more famous than ever. ABC-TV bought the rights to the film of the jump paying far more than they originally would have had they televised the original jump live. Ironically, when Knievel finally achieved the fame and possible fortune that he always wanted, his doctors were telling him that he might never walk without the aid of crutches, let alone ride and jump motorcycles.
On January 7 and January 8, 1971, Knievel set the record by selling over 100,000 tickets to back-to-back performances at the Houston Astrodome. On February 28, he set a new world record by jumping 19 cars with his Harley-Davidson XR-750 in Ontario, California. Knievel held the record for 27 years until Bubba Blackwell jumped 20 cars in 1998 with a XR-750 .
On May 10, Knievel crashed while attempting to jump 13 Pepsi delivery trucks. His approach was complicated by the fact that he had to start on pavement, cut across grass, and then return to pavement. His lack of speed caused the motorcycle to come down front wheel first. He managed to hold on until the cycle hit the base of the ramp. After being thrown off he skidded for 50 feet (15 m). Knievel broke his collarbone, suffered a compound fracture of his right arm and broke both legs.
Knievel continued to jump and promote his Labor Day assault on Snake River Canyon. On March 3, 1972 at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California, Knievel got into a scuffle with a couple of Hells Angels in the audience. After making a successful jump, he tried to come to a quick stop because of a short landing area. Knievel suffered a broken back and a concussion after getting thrown off and run over by his motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson. Knievel returned to jumping in November, 1973, where he successfully jumped over 50 stacked cars at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. For 35 years, Knievel held the record for successfully jumping the most stacked cars on a Harley-Davidson XR-750 (the record was broken in October 2008). His historic XR-750 is now part of the collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Made of steel, aluminum, and fiberglass, the customized motorcycle weighs about 300 pounds.
The launch at Snake River Canyon was on September 8, 1974 at 3:36 p.m. local time. The steam that powered the engine had to get up to a temperature of 500 °F. Upon take-off, the drogue parachute accidentally deployed when the bolts holding the cover for the chute stripped out with the force of the blast. The deployed chute caused enough drag that even though the skycycle made it all the way across the canyon, the prevailing winds caused it to drift back into the canyon. By the time it hit the bottom of the canyon, it landed only a few feet from the water on the side of the canyon it had been launched from. If he had landed in the water, Knievel would have drowned due to a jumpsuit/harness malfunction which kept him strapped in the vehicle. Knievel survived the jump with only minor injuries.
Knievel would regularly share his anti-drug message, as it was another one of his core values . Knievel would preach an anti-drug message to children and adults before each of his stunts. Even the plot to his only motion picture, "Viva Knievel", centered around druglords.
Knievel kept up his pursuit of getting the United States government to allow him to jump the Grand Canyon. To push his case, he hired famed San Francisco defense attorney Melvin Belli to fight the legal battle in obtaining government permission. ABC's Wide World of Sports started showing Knievel's jumps on television regularly. His popularity, especially with young boys, was ever increasing. He became a hero to a generation of young boys, many of whom were injured trying to imitate his stunts. A. J. Foyt made Knievel part of his pit crew for the Indianapolis 500 in 1970. Evel Knievel's huge fame caused him to start traveling with a bodyguard, Boots Curtis. Curtis became a long time friend to Knievel.
Later in the decade, the merchandising of the Knievel image reached additional media. Ideal Toys released a bendable Knievel action figure in 1974; along with a host of accessories, there was also a female counterpart available—Derry Daring. In 1977, Bally marketed its Knievel pinball machine as the "first fully electronic commercial game"; it has elsewhere been described as one of the "last of the classic pre-digital games.
Knievel made several television appearances, including a guest spot on The Bionic Woman where he played himself. He was a frequent guest on talk shows such as Dinah! and Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. On January 31, 1977, during a dress rehearsal for a CBS special on live daredevil stunts at the Chicago International Amphitheatre, Knievel crashed, breaking both arms and his collarbone. In the process, a misplaced cameraman was injured, losing an eye. In June 1977, Warner Bros. released Viva Knievel!, a movie starring Knievel as himself and co-starring Lauren Hutton, Gene Kelly, and Red Buttons. The movie was a box office smash.
While Knievel was healing from his latest round of injuries, the book Evel Knievel on Tour was released. Authored by Knievel's promoter for the Snake River Canyon jump, Shelly Saltman, the book painted a less than perfect picture of Knievel's character and alleged he abused his wife and kids and he used drugs. Knievel, with both arms still in casts, flew to California to confront Saltman, a VP at Twentieth Century Fox. Outside the studio commissary, one of Knievel's friends grabbed Saltman and held him, while Knievel attacked him with an aluminum baseball bat, declaring, "I'm going to kill you!" According to a witness to the attack, Knievel struck repeated blows at Saltman's head, with Saltman blocking the blows with his left arm. Saltman's arm and wrist were shattered in several places before he fell to the ground unconscious. It took numerous surgeries and permanent metal plates in his arm to eventually give Saltman back the use of his arm. Sheldon Saltman's book was pulled from the shelves by the publisher after Knievel threatened to sue. Saltman later produced documents in both criminal and civil court that proved that, although Knievel claimed to have been insulted by statements in Saltman's book, he and his lawyers had actually been given editorial access to the book and had approved and signed off on every word prior to its publication. On October 14, 1977, Knievel pleaded guilty to battery and was sentenced to three years probation and six months in the county jail, during which he publicly flaunted his brief incarceration for the press as just one more publicity stunt. Knievel's recently released FBI file is over 290 pages long, and documents a history of assult, battery, and intimidation. .
The same FBI files also reveal multiple testimonies suggesting, and investigator conclusions that, Knieval was guilty of Hobbs violations (conspiracy)by commanding several assistants to commit assult and intimidation. The report goes farther and in several places draws connection between Knievel and a "crime syndicate", likely connected to his Las Vegas appearances in the 1970's.
In 1999, Knievel was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
On November 19, 1999, on a special platform built on the fountains at Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas Strip near Las Vegas, Nevada (site of Evel’s jump New Year's Eve 1967), Evel married long time girlfriend, 30-year-old Krystal Kennedy of Clearwater, Florida. Krystal's twin sister Shawn (Kennedy) Marsh served as Maid of Honor and standing up for Evel was his oldest son Kelly Knievel. Long-time friend Engelbert Humperdinck sent a recorded tribute to the couple. They were divorced in 2001 but remained together until his death.
Shortly before his death, Knievel was saluted by Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond for a BBC2 Christmas special. The sixty minute programme Richard Hammond Meets Evel Knievel aired on December 23, 2007. The documentary was filmed in the summer of 2007 around the annual "Evel Knievel Days" festival in his old home town of Butte, but throughout the program it was clear that Knievel was in severely declining health. However, one conclusion that was also made was that Knievel had the same spirit and showmanship that had driven his career, demonstrated by his unerring loyalty to his fans.
At his request, he was baptized before the congregation and TV cameras by Dr. Schuller, Founding Pastor of the Crystal Cathedral. Christianity Today reported that "…Knievel's testimony triggered mass baptisms at the Crystal Cathedral."
Evel Knievel had partnered with Six Flags St. Louis to name a new wooden coaster after "America's Legendary Daredevil. The amusement park in Eureka, Missouri, outside of St. Louis, Missouri, opened the ride on June 20, 2008.
Knievel died in Clearwater, Florida on November 30 2007, aged 69. He had been suffering from diabetes and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis for many years. A longtime friend reported that Knievel had trouble breathing while at his residence in Clearwater, but died before the ambulance could reach the hospital. "It's been coming for years, but you just don't expect it. Superman just doesn't die, right? In his last interview, he told Maxim Magazine, "You can’t ask a guy like me why [I performed]. I really 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.
Knievel was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in his hometown of Butte, Montana on December 10 2007 following a funeral at the 7,500-seat Butte Civic Center presided over by Rev. Robert Schuller. Prior to the Monday service, fireworks exploded in the Butte night sky as pallbearers carried Knievel's casket into the center.
Knievel's daredevil persona was parodied as "Super Dave Osborne," a fictional character played by Bob Einstein whose signature is to perform outrageous stunts which invariably go awry and result in grievous injury.
Knievel was also parodied in the episode Bart the Daredevil on the Simpsons in the guise of "Captain Lance Murdock." Murdock is a motorcycle daredevil whom Bart meets and is inspired by. Bart turns to daredevilism on his skateboard. The climax of the episode is when Bart attempts to jump his skateboard across "Springfield Gorge," an obvious parody of the Snake River Canyon jump. Homer then comes and stops Bart from making the jump and, while standing on the skateboard, begins to descend down the ramp into the Gorge. At first it appears that Homer is going to make the jump and then he falls to the bottom of the Gorge, suffering several major injuries.
The recurring character of Ernie Devlin from Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law is also a parody of Knievel. Always seen on a motorcycle, with an overweight prostitute, he was sued for children imitating his stunts. Ernie Devlin himself, was the lead character of a 1974 Hanna-Barbera animated series of the same name, which was created to cash in on the Knievel/stuntman adulation of that time period.
Knievel has also been copied by Marvel Comics for the famous character Ghost Rider. His troop is known as "The Daredevils". Most of their scenes are based on Knievel's stunts and, in the movie, Johnny Blaze's costume is the same as Knievel's.
Knievel has been parodied in Kanye West's music video Touch the Sky, for which Knievel actually pressed charges on West for copyright infringement. The case was settled days before Knievel died.
He is also shown in Disney Channel's The Replacements as Dick Daring, an overactive stuntsman that performs stunts and wears an outfit very similar to Evel Knievels.
The 2007 movie Hot Rod with Andy Samberg parodies Evel Knievel, with the main character attempting to become a stunt man and tries to clear fifteen buses to save his father.
The makers of MTV's Jackass, in collaboration with Matt Hoffman, have released a tribute to the late stunt man, where the boys of Jackass attempt to set world records and emulate one of their heroes.
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