I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Evel Knievel: Above and Beyond

by Casey Dewey
July 6, 2012

Brave - 1. Willing to face danger, pain, or trouble; not afraid; having courage 2. showing to good effect; having a fine appearance 3. fine, grand, or splendid.

Daredevil - bold and reckless.

“America is a willingness of the heart” - F Scott Fitzgerald

Only in America could a man like Robert “Evel” Knievel exist. Brash, brave and bold, Evel Knievel is as American as apple pie, fireworks and the Las Vegas strip. Ceremoniously draped in his red, white and blue leather jumpsuit, he captivated the world with his jaw-dropping and death-defying motorcycle stunts. Flying over (or crashing and burning over) stacked cars, buses, semi trucks, deadly animals and deep chasms in the earth, he symbolized America’s core values and ideals: be true to yourself, don’t be afraid, suck in your gut and make it a BIG SHOW. If you succeed - great, you’ve done your job. If you don’t succeed - brush it off and and do it again, and most importantly - keep your word.

The call of the wild came early to a young Knievel kicking around in Butte, Montana. Apparently working in a copper mine is as exciting as it sounds, so the restless teenager decided to kick it up a notch. Driving around in a gargantuan earth mover, he performed his first stunt by making that sucker pop a wheelie and crash into Butte’s main power line, knocking out juice for hours. He wasn’t Evel just yet, and I’m sure the foreman didn’t recognize a future legend when he saw one, because Knievel was promptly fired on the spot. Soon after that escapade Knievel ended up in jail on a reckless driving beef - he crashed his motorcycle while leading the cops on a wild goose chase. It was there in the city jail where Robert Knievel was christened “Evel” Knievel. A fellow cellmate was one William Knofel, also known as Awful Knofel. The jailers, having a good sense of humour and crystal clear foresight, then dubbed Robert “Evel”. Although he was a daredevil but not devilish, he accepted the moniker, but did not want be known as “Evil”.

Turning his back on a life of petty crime, Evel got a job selling motorcycles. Sales were sluggish, and a gimmick to move product was desperately needed. In true American fashion, Evel rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty. Evel was as DIY as one gets. He rented out a venue, wrote up press releases, sold tickets and was of course the star of the show. Once the festivities started, Evel rode around, whooped it up and popped a few wheelies. In a move that would have made PT Barnum stand up and applaud, the show stopper would be the jump. Not just an ordinary jump, but jumping over a box of rattlesnakes and box of mountain lions. After barely clearing the boxes of predators, a star was born. The crowd went nuts. Evel got wise. “More. More big. More crazy.”

The touring circuit began. Curious crowds from small towns all came to see the man pull stunts, and maybe catch the man hurt himself. The injuries were piling up, but did not deter him in the least. Tired of the ol’ “jumping over animals and pools of water” bit, Evel put on his big boy pants and went for the real danger: jumping over cars. At first there were just a few, but as the crowds taste for danger skyrocketed, there were more and more cars added, and more and more trips to the hospital. Evel was spending a good amount of time in these, suffering through broken arms, broken ribs, and bruises galore. His most famous stunt yet was the Caesars Palace jump in 1968, his longest at 141 feet that resulted in a spectacular crash and burn, filmed for posterity for an ABC special. This time it almost cost him; he spent almost a month in the hospital with a crushed pelvis and a concussion that resulted in a coma.

Evel Knievel mania was skyrocketing, and he would have rocketed across the moon if he could have. He set his sights on the Grand Canyon next. Did I mention Evel had balls of steel yet? After developing a series of bikes that would do the job, the chiefs in charge, the US government themselves put the kibosh on this cocamamie idea. Not one to back down, Evel just went and found himself a slightly smaller passage to leap over, the cooler sounding Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, Idaho. At over 1,500 feet wide, the right bike had to do the job. Enter the Skycycle X-2, a steam powered rocket designed by an ex-US Navy engineer. In an event broadcasted on closed-circuit television in movie theaters, the Snake River Canyon stunt was, again, not exactly a success. Upon take off, and in front of 15 thousand rubberneckers, the Skycycle’s parachute deployed, causing Evel to merely fall almost right off the ramp into the canyon below. He walked away with only “minor injuries”. Clearly Knievel had made a special deal with the man upstairs. Defeated but not destroyed, Evel pressed on, pausing only slightly to let the world know it wasn’t his fault the chute prematurely deployed, it was the designers fault. The crowds only loved him more.

After jumping over thirteen buses in Wembley Stadium in London, only to destroy his pelvis in the process, Evel decided to call it a day. I guess he had second thoughts during convalescence, because soon after he was successfully jumping over Greyhound buses in Ohio and sharks in Chicago. Take that Fonzie! Evel was first! Evel was enjoying the decadence of the 70s, hitting the booze, chasing skirts, doing guest appearances on TV and in movies, rabble rousing with the best of them. He even did a 6-month stint in the Big House for attacking a former publicist with a Louisville Slugger who wrote an unflattering book on Knievel. The prison stay did damage; Evel lost big time endorsements with Harley Davidson and toy companies, and put a huge dent in his checking account.

Evel eventually retired from the spectacles in the early 80s, but not before grooming his son Robbie to step in his red, white and blue shoes. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in the Knievel household, soon enough Robbie was rip roaring and leaping over obstacles himself, and often more successfully than his pops. Evel, who succumbed to lung disease in 2007, spent the rest of his years in the public eye; on TV promoting hotels and casinos, touring the country in an RV and selling his own artwork, telling kids to say no to drugs and telling motorcycle enthusiasts to wear their helmets. He was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999, owns the dubious title of “most bones broken in a lifetime” from the Guinness Book of World Records and is regarded as one of America’s finest showmen. This 4th of July, while you’re looking up at the bursting display of fireworks, think of Evel Knievel and the strength and courage he embodied.. We don’t have a lot of guys like this anymore, and I can’t think of a finer American hero.



Casey Dewey resides in Tucson, Arizona. He's a film writer for the Tucson Weekly and host of "Deep Red Radio" , a radio show dedicated to film soundtracks on 91.3 KXCI FM. He enjoys tacos, cervezas and garlic in everything. He wakes up every morning to a fresh pot of black coffee and at least two hours of Dragnet on TV.