Evel: The High Flying Life of Evel Knievel: Book Review
American folk hero was first reality star but also had an ugly dark side.
If you were a young boy, like I was, in the summer of 1974, you talked about two things: Evel Knievel's upcoming Snake River Canyon jump and Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's home run record. I remember we talked more about Evel than Aaron: Would he make it? Can you really break all the bones in your body? How many garbage cans could we clear on our bicycle? After the canyon jump failed, we moved on to other things as 7-year-old boys do. I can't remember what now.
I hadn't thought much about Evel Knievel in the intervening 35 years until I picked up Leigh Montville's awesome new biography Evel: The High Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend. If you're like me and you remember the name but are hazy on the details, you'll love Montville's rollicking good tale -- told with an Irishman's wink and nod -- of how Knievel blazed across the American consciousness in the late-'60s and early-'70s. The book stumbles a bit at the end, when the story turns dark. But the first two-thirds are a fabulous ride, and Montville -- author of best-selling biographies about Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Dale Earnhardt -- has a great feel for Knievel as an archetypal American character.
Robert Craig Knievel was born Oct. 10, 1938, in Butte, Mont. -- the nickname Evel would come much later and, like all things Knievel, the subject of numerous and often conflicting stories. After dropping out of high school, Knievel was a small-time thief and hustler but a charming one. He persuaded pretty uptown cheerleader Linda Bork to marry him (Montville perfectly captures his just-good-looking-enough bad-boy appeal with the phrase "barroom handsome"). He got the world-champion Czech hockey team to play an exhibition against the semipro Butte Bombers on its way to the Squaw Valley Olympics. The game ended badly for everyone -- the Bombers lost 22-3, the Czechs got bounced early from the Olympics, and most vendors never got paid -- except Knievel, who made a bundle. By 1962, Knievel had become a successful insurance salesman. This was still a time -- before the age of the computer-background check -- when a man could completely reinvent himself Don Draper-style as respectable. But respectability bored Knievel.
While trying to make it as a motorcycle racer in Los Angeles, Knievel decided to try his hand at stunt riding, booking three shows for "Evel Knievel and the Motorcycle Daredevils" (he soon added "Hollywood" -- Knievel knew what sold) in early 1966. In the first show, he jumped two trucks end-to-end; in the second, he cracked four ribs in a crash. Knievel realized he was on to something.
He was still a small-time player when he hustled his way into a gig jumping the fountains at the newly opened Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Dec. 31, 1967. Knievel flooded Caesars with fake calls from fans interested in the unscheduled jump and then threatened to sue the casino for unauthorized use of his name. Caesars agreed to pay Knievel $4,500 to make the New Year's Eve jump plus two others. Filmmaker John Derek arrived with his wife, actress Linda Evans, to record the jump for a documentary.
The jump was a disaster, but crashing made Knievel famous. The inexperienced Evans' spectacular footage was shown on ABC's Wide World of Sports to great ratings (eventually eight of the 10-highest-rated Wide World of Sports episodes featured Knievel). For the next few years, Knievel continued to perfect his act, jumping cars and busses, indoors and outdoors, missing almost as much as he succeeded. Ever the showman, Knievel proclaimed nearly every attempt a world record of one kind or another (nobody tracked this stuff, so who knew).
Here, you wish Montville had delved a bit more into the physics of jumping and the limitations of '60s cycles. Knievel seems to have jumped on instinct with little thought to takeoff angles and speeds. He rode heavy rigid beasts -- Triumphs, Laverdas and Harleys with 750cc engines -- trying to make jumps on sheer muscle. Only later did daredevils learn that lighter, springier bikes jumped further.
Fame did not bring money until two things changed Knievel's life: George Hamilton's Evel Knievel biopic and the Ideal Toy Co.'s Evel Knievel action figure and stunt cycle set. The movie did middling business in summer 1971, but Knievel's appearance fees skyrocketed. The toy was the big moneymaker. Between Christmas 1973 and its cancellation in December 1977, Ideal sold more than $100 million worth of Knievel toys, netting the jumper perhaps $10 million (Knievel was not a record keeper). He was, as Montville observes, "caught in the fat tornado of capitalism that visits few people in their lives."
Knievel lived the high life. He bought cars -- Lamborghinis, Ferraris, a $129,500 Stutz -- flew private jets and sailed in a yacht. As fast as he could make it, he spent it. He met Elvis Presley, appeared on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson and lunched with Richard Burton and Salvador Dali. Knievel loved fame, and he invented a new kind of celebrity. Sure there had been celebrity endorsement deals and toys before. But Knievel sensed that fame itself was a commodity that could be monetized. He became a brand, and the thing he was selling was his outrageousness and bravado. The recent HBO movie Cinema Verite pegged the PBS classic An American Family as the start of reality television, but that's wrong. Knievel better deserves the honor, and it's easy to see his DNA in everyone from Spencer Pratt to Charlie Sheen.
From the start, he talked about a canyon jump for its PR value. He flirted with the Grand Canyon before settling on Idaho's Snake River Canyon. He announced a date, painted it on his equipment truck and then repainted it as the expected jump kept slipping into the future. His "prototype" was a flimsy prop. The first engineer he hired built toy rockets for models. Yet somehow Knievel persuaded Bob Traux, a guy who designed missiles for the Pentagon, to build him a "skycycle."
The jump was a total failure. The skycycle cleared the canyon, but the parachute dragged it back over the rim where it fell to the bottom; a few feet to one side, and Knievel would have drowned. Only 15,000 people showed up live and fewer than 500,000 paid to watch it on closed-circuit television. Knievel came across as more charlatan than daredevil. The whole thing was famously skewered in Rolling Stone by an aspiring screenwriter named Joe Eszterhas. Montville argues Knievel's real mistake was misjudging his audience. His biggest fans were kids, but the canyon jump -- a drunken party in the middle of nowhere and a stunt where death seemed a real possibility -- was anything but kid-friendly.
Knievel seemed to lose interest in jumping (except for his famous 1975 Wembley jump). Maybe his body started to wear down, maybe the fear started to get to him. Still, a lucrative career of appearances and TV guest spots beckoned until he beat the crap out of Shelly Saltman, a vp at 20th Century Fox who had written an unflattering book about Knievel after working as a publicist on the canyon jump. In September 1977, Knievel attacked Saltman with a metal baseball bat on the Fox lot. This is the ugly, dark side of Knievel that Montville dances around -- the drunk, the anti-Semite, the swindler, the wife beater. He can't quite mesh that Knievel with the Bunyanesque rapscallion who is so entertaining for the first two-thirds.
Montville loses interest in Knievel's story after the beating, or maybe the story just becomes less interesting. Knievel served three months in jail. He went bankrupt. He became an artist. He found Jesus. He died from lung disease Nov. 30, 2007. The last 30 years go by in 10 pages.
Some readers are going to be put off by the abrupt end and will say Montville softballs Knievel's dark side for too long. But I think this is Knievel's story. The public mostly knew the surface Knievel until the beating. Montville nails it just right. Like a good storyteller, he holds some information back until the reader needs it.
The front of Knievel's large tombstone in Butte proclaims his faith and love in Jesus. But if you look around the back, you can see an inscription about how he died at Snake River Canyon on Sept. 8, 1974. Knievel recycled the freebie he had hustled 33 years earlier as a publicity stunt. Perhaps that's the truer epitaph.