Evel Knievel Biography | An American Legend
Everything you need to know about the iconic daredevil
Evel Knievel. A name that for many immediately brings to mind broken bones, death-defying stunts, and star-spangled motorbikes. But behind Knievel's most famous stunts, who was he really? What motivated him to do what he did time and time again? Draw the curtain of show business shut, and what kind of man were you left with? This, right here, is the full story.
Unsurprisingly, Evel Knievel wasn't Evel Knievel's real name. Born Robert Craig Knievel Junior, on the 17th of October 1938 in Butte, Montana, he was the eldest of two. After his parents divorced in 1940 and left Butte, Knievel and his brother Nicolas were raised by their grandparents.
Knievel's love affair with stunt performing began when, aged just eight, he attended a Joie Chitwood auto show. Chitwood was an American race car driver and daredevil, and someone who Knievel would later credit as being the man who most influenced his unorthodox career decision.
After leaving high school, Knievel got a job in the copper mines as a drill operator but in classic Knievel style he was fired from this line of work after an attempted stunt with an earth mover resulted in him driving into a power line; cutting off the city's electricity supply for several hours.
In 1956, Knievel crashed his motorbike and was taken to jail on a reckless driving charge. The story goes that the cell just along from Knievel's that night was occupied by a man named William Knofel. Knofel was known locally as "Awful Knofel" and Knievel adopted the moniker 'Evel' soon after. It sounds too Hollywood to be true, but then nothing much else about Knievel's life was normal so go figure.
By this stage, Knievel's addiction to adrenaline was clear to see. He took part in local rodeos, ski jumping events, and even became a pole vaulter during his brief stint in the United States Army. Upon returning from the army, Knievel returned to Butte and married Linda Joan Bork. Knievel, a man of constant surprises, started a semi-pro hockey team called the Butte Bombers shortly after his wedding.
In a bid to promote the Butte Bombers and stir up some revenue, Knievel somehow managed to convince the 1960 Czechoslovakian hockey team to play them in a warm-up match prior to the Olympics. Knievel was ejected from the game in the third period, and left the stadium.
When the Czechoslovakian officials went to the stadium's box office to collect expenses money they'd been promised, workers there discovered that the game receipts were missing. To avoid an international incident, the U.S Olympic Committee had to step in and cover the Czechoslovakian's expenses.
At this time in his life, Knievel was no stranger to controversy. Historians, for example, talk of his time spent as a "private security specialist" in Butte; an operation where he would offer his sentry services to local businesses. What Knievel didn't admit till much later in life, re: this particular matter, was that he would often rob the businesses that didn't sign up for his protection. If that sounds like a page straight out of the mafia playbook, it's because it basically was.
"Knievel was no stranger to controversy"
Following the birth of his first son, Knievel, an experienced hunter and fisherman, started the Sur-Kill Guide Service in order to support the family financially. He promised his clients that they'd get the big game animal they asked for, or be fully refunded. Business was good until it was discovered that he'd been taking people into Yellowstone National Park to hunt illegally. Off the back of this, authorities immediately ordered him to stop poaching.
Knievel then joined the motocross circuit but, despite some moderate success, he was struggling to make ends meet when in 1962 a motocross accident resulted in him breaking his collarbone and shoulder. After doctors told him to stop racing for a minimum of six months, Knievel took the kind of decision all daredevil spirits dread - he got himself a nine-to-five office job selling insurance.
The company's president W. Clement Stone had co-authored a book called 'Success Through A Positive Mental Attitude' which included such lines as "Thinking will not overcome fear, but action will." Knievel earnestly absorbed these one-line ideas and carried them with him through his rollercoaster of a life. One look at a collection of the most famous Evel Knievel quotes highlights just how much the book's style influenced his public persona.
Knievel's insurance salesman career peaked when he managed to break a district record for the most number of policies sold in a single week. Like one of the final stage candidates on The Apprentice, when all the rank amateurs have already had the finger from Sugar, nothing could stop Knievel as he racked up an astonishing 271 sign-ups over the course of one week. How did he do it? By talking his way into a state mental hospital in Montana and selling to staff, patients, and anyone else who'd listen.
“Thinking will not overcome fear"
For his ruthlessly successful sales numbers, and for literally taking money from the mentally unwell, Knievel was even given an award. Celebrated by the big players at his company as someone who personified the can-do attitude of their president, 'Bob' (as he was known to colleagues) lapped up the attention that came his way. However, what he wanted more than anything was to be offered the position of vice president. When senior figures at the company refused to promote him, he quit.
A failed attempt at running his own Honda motorcycle dealership in Washington followed, in part because there was still some resentment to the Japanese after World War II and also because a significant number of the population believed American-builds to be superior.
After this, Knievel began work at a motorcycle shop belonging to Don Pomeroy. Pomerory's son Jim, a man who would go on to compete in the Motocross World Championship, taught Knievel how to do a "wheelie" and ride while standing on the bike's seat.
The countdown to Evel Knievel's career as a daredevil had begun.
Evel Knievel's Stunts
Knievel's first show, which he promoted and sold tickets for off his own back, involved a jump over two mountain lions and a box of rattlesnakes. Despite landing just short, and hitting the box with the deadly rattlesnakes in with his back wheel, Knievel managed to land safely and come away without serious injury. It would be the opening chapter of an incredible life performing stunts.
Always keen to maximise profit and make proper money, Knievel came to the conclusion that if he was to properly rake in the big bucks he'd need to hire more performers and stunt coordinators so that he could really go and create a must-see spectacle for the masses. Bagging some much needed sponsorship off Bob Blair, owner of ZDS Motors Inc, the troupe known as 'Evel Knievel and his Motorcycle Daredevils' was born.
"The bike hit him square in the groin and sent him flying 15ft into the air"
The group made their debut on the 23rd of January 1966 in Indio, California. Wheelies were performed, plywood firewalls were deliberately crashed through, and two pick-up trucks were successfully jumped over. It was clear that a winning formula had been struck upon, as numerous offers were made to Knievel for more shows in different locations.
Knievel suffered an absolutely savage, makes-you-wince-just-thinking-about-it, injury at the next show in Barstow, California. The stunt involved Knievel attempting to jump spread eagle over a speeding motorcycle but, after jumping too late, the bike hit him square in the groin and sent him flying 15ft into the air. The incident put 'E.K' in the hospital. It also, and we can only hazard a guess here, presumably made any men watching shed a tear of sympathy while cupping their own private parts.
Never one for wanting to let the down the crowd, after recovering from his injury Knievel returned to Barstow to finish what he'd started. More jumps, successful and unsuccessful followed, and further painful injuries seemingly became part of the routine.
The first of Evel Knievel's most famous stunts occurred on New Year's Eve 1967 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The stunt involved an attempted 141ft (43m) motorcycle jump over the hotel's iconic fountain. It did not go as planned, with Knievel coming off the bike on landing and suffering a crushed pelvis and femur, fractures to various bones, and severe concussion. After ABC bought the crash footage and televised it, Knievel's fame went to a whole new level.
Other famous failed Knievel stunts include the time he tried and failed to fly across Idaho’s Snake River Canyon in a steam-powered rocket, and the time he tried and failed to jump a motorbike across 13 single-decker buses in front of a crowd of 90,000 at London’s Wembley Stadium. Knievel’s dream had always been to jump his motorbike across the Grand Canyon but after the Interior Department denied him airspace for such a stunt, Knievel was forced to switch his attention elsewhere - eventually settling on Snake River.
"I will never, ever, ever jump again. I’m through"
After the crash at Wembley in 1975, Knievel announced to the watching public: “Ladies and gentleman of this wonderful country, I've got to tell you that you are the last people in the world who will ever see me jump. Because I will never, ever, ever jump again. I'm through."
This wasn’t to be the end though. Perhaps because he was hooked on the adrenaline of jumping, or perhaps because he craved a few more paydays, Knievel signed up to more stunts - including a comeback performance at Kings Island in Ohio where he successfully jumped over 14 greyhound buses. A crash in 1977, that occured while practising a stunt which involved jumping over 13 sharks, was to be Knievel’s swansong. Scheduled jumps in Australia, in 1979, and Puerto Rico, in 1980, did not go ahead.
By the end of his 15-year daredevil career between 1965 and 1980, Knievel had attempted or landed over 75 ramp-to-ramp motorbike jumps.
How Many Bones Did Evel Knievel Break?
An entry in the 1975 Guinness Book of World Records states that Knievel had suffered more than 433 bone fractures, making him the survivor of "most bones broken in a lifetime."
This number though may have been greatly exaggerated as Evel reckons the number was 35, with his son Robbie, who went on to be a stunt performer in his own right, putting Knievel's broken bones number at somewhere between 40 and 50.
Evel Knievel's Personal Life
Knievel married twice. During his time with first wife Linda, who he was with for 38 years, Knievel fathered four children (Kelly, Robbie, Tracey and Alicia). Clearly inspired by their father's example, his teenage sons Kelly and Robbie would even perform at Knievel's shows. Robbie, in particular, went on to become a famous daredevil in his own right - going on to jump a section of the Grand Canyon in 1999.
Evel Knievel was charged in 1977 for attacking his former promoter Shelly Saltman with a baseball bat, after he'd alleged that Knievel was a drug user who acted abusively towards his family. This resulted in a six-month jail sentence that contravened a lucrative contract Knievel had with Ideal Toys. At this stage in his career, Ideal Toys provided him with his main source of income so the loss was keenly felt. Factor in a cripplingly expensive unpaid tax demand in 1981, and he was left with no choice but to file for bankruptcy.
In 1999, Knievel married Krystal Kennedy. The wedding ceremony took place on a purpose-built platform built on the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas - scene of one of Knievel's most iconic jumps over 30 years earlier. Despite divorcing from him in 2001, and with Krystal being granted a restraining order against him, the pair eventually sorted things out; living together until Knievel's death in 2007. Aged 69, Knievel died of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis - a condition which had plagued the latter stages of his life.
Evel Knievel In Popular Culture
1977 saw the release of 'Viva Knievel!' Starring Evel Knievel as himself, the plot centres on the daredevil being lured to Mexico by drug dealers who want to kill him for his truck (The Godfather II, it is not).
Three months after the film’s premiere, Knievel committed the aforementioned crime against Shelly Saltman. His conviction for the incident made the film commercially unattractive to an international market, and it fell into obscurity. At the time of writing, 'Viva Knievel!' has an average rating of 2.8/10 on IMDB and 17% on Rotten Tomatoes.
In 1971, six years before 'Viva', an Evel Knievel film called simply 'Evel Knievel' was released. The film, that starred George Hamilton as Knievel, reflects on major aspects of Knievel's life such as his relationship with his wife Linda and the legendary jump at Caesars Palace.
The Simpsons episode 'Bart The Daredevil', which first aired in 1990, features a stunt performer called Lance Murdock - a character clearly inspired by Evel Knievel. In the episode, Murdock successfully jumps his motorbike over a tank filled with a number of dangerous animals before falling in while celebrating. Murdock's actions inspire Bart to try and jump his skateboard over Springfield Gorge. Fearing for his safety, Homer stops Bart from going through with the stunt before accidentally attempting it himself. Matt Groening, the show's creator, rates the episode as his favourite of that series.
In 2007, Kanye West settled a lawsuit with Evel Knievel after the rapper parodied the daredevil's Snake River rocket stunt in his music video for 'Touch The Sky'. The video saw Kanye West dub himself 'Evel Kanyevel' and was criticised by Knievel for its "vulgar, sexual nature." Knievel took issue with the fact that his image was being used, as he put it, to "promote West's filth to the world."
Knievel died just days after the settlement with West.