Evel Knievel: Motorcycle daredevil famed for his bone-breaking jumps


Robert Craig Knievel (Evel Knievel), motorcycle stuntman: born Butte, Montana 17 October 1938; married 1959 Linda Bork (two sons, two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1999 Krystal Kennedy (marriage dissolved); died Clearwater, Florida 30 November 2007.

In the early 1970s just about every schoolboy west of Moscow could have told you what Evel Knievel did for a living the world's most fearless stuntman was regularly in the news with his latest motorcycle jump, successful or otherwise. His death-defying attempts included the Snake River Canyon in Idaho, the fountains at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, and a line of 14 buses at Wembley Stadium. He also made the Guinness Book of Records for the 433 bone fractures sustained from the many jumps where he didn't quite make it.

By 1975 he was worth millions. Two films had been made about his life, several books written and Ideal Corporation alone had sold more than $300m worth of Evel Knievel toys. He starred in a film, Viva Knievel! (1977), and was linked with various actresses. The Smithsonian Institute in Washington acquired one of Knievel's customised Harley Davidsons for its National Museum of American History.

These were the good times but before and after this period his life was not so glamorous. He was born Robert Craig Knievel in 1938 in the rough copper-mining town of Butte, Montana. His parents divorced when he was six, and he was brought up by his grandparents. In the 1950s Butte still resembled a frontier town with prostitution and gambling engaged in openly and a culture of drunkenness and fighting on the streets. Knievel joined in this lifestyle with enthusiasm, gaining a reputation at school for his toughness and sporting ability. He worked in the mines for two years, raced stock cars and motorcycles, rode horses in the rodeo, joined the Army in the late Fifties and when he came out, drifted into crime.

By 1960 he was on the road with a gang roaming the western states, robbing banks and stores, eventually ending up in California where his partner was arrested for a robbery in Orange County and jailed for 15 years. They never caught Knievel, but he did get locked up occasionally for lesser crimes. According to one story, it was in some small-town jail that he was given the nickname Evil, as he was locked up next to a local crook called Knoffell whom the sheriff had christened Awful. Knievel liked the name, changed the spelling to Evel and made it official.

In 1959 he married his high-school sweetheart Linda Bork, and when their first son was born in 1961 Knievel decided to give up crime and get a job, first as a guide in Yellowstone National Park then as an insurance salesman. He even had a spell as a policeman. While working for the Combined Insurance Company of America in 1962 he impressed his bosses one week by selling a record number of policies until they discovered that half the sales had gone to the inmates of a lunatic asylum.

By 1965 Knievel was selling Triumph motorcycles in Moses Lake, Washington state. He hit upon the idea of attracting customers by announcing that he would make a motorcycle jump 40 feet over parked cars and a box of rattlesnakes. Hundreds of people gathered to watch the stunt, witnessing Knievel fail to fly far enough and come down on top of the rattlesnakes.

At the age of 26 he had at last found something he really enjoyed doing in his own words, "jumping over weird stuff on motorcycles". He started a daredevil show with some fellow bikers but it soon became clear that the thing the crowd really wanted to see was the final act at each performance, where Knievel would attempt ever more ambitious jumps. So from then on he worked alone, wearing what would become his trademark star-spangled leathers in red, white and blue, with matching cape and riding a modified 750cc Harley Davidson. Part of the appeal to the crowds that came to his shows in ever-increasing numbers was the knowledge that he was likely to crash he didn't use any science in preparing a jump, just his own "guesstimate" of what he thought he could do.

By 1967 he was a celebrity, appearing regularly on television and giving ABC's Wide World of Sports some of its highest-rated shows. In 1968 he attempted a 150ft jump over the fountain outside Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas, but landed badly. "Everything seemed to come apart", he later recalled. "I kept smashing over and over and ended up against a brick wall 165 feet away." He broke several bones and was unconscious for a month. This didn't put him off however, and over the next few years he made several hundred successful jumps, including clearing 50 scrapped cars stacked four-deep at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1973.

In May 1975 he performed a show at a packed Wembley Stadium in London. He cleared 13 buses but landed badly, coming off and then being hit by the flying motorcycle. He broke his pelvis and several vertebrae. One of his more spectacular failures was his much-publicised attempt, in September 1974, to cross the 1,600ft Snake River Canyon in Idaho on a steam-powered "Skycycle". The parachute deployed too early and he plunged to the bottom of the canyon but the attempt still boosted his earnings by $6m.

Knievel had taken his daredevil stunts to the limit and beyond, and after a failed attempt to jump a pool full of sharks in Chicago in 1976 he went into semi-retirement, limiting himself to small shows with his son Robbie. In 10 years of stunt work he had been in hospital for a total of nearly three years, and was now barely able to walk.

His fortune began to decline in 1977 when he attacked his former publicist Sheldon Saltman with a baseball bat for supposedly slandering him in a book. Knievel was sentenced to three years in prison for assault, although he was released after six months. It was the end of lucrative endorsements, and a period of heavy drinking and gambling followed.

He now lived in Las Vegas, although he always kept links with Butte, where he had built a million-dollar mansion overlooking the 16th fairway of Butte Country Club golf course he was a good golfer, and enjoyed betting up to $100,000 on a game. His marriage to Linda had suffered from his constant philandering she put up with it for more than 30 years but they finally split up in 1992, Knievel complaining that his wife had become "unbearably religious" after she and their elder daughter Tracey began serving as missionaries. In April this year, Knievel himself became a Christian, and was baptised in front of a congregation of 4,000 at the Crystal Cathedral mega- church in Garden Grove, California.

Soon after his separaton from Linda, Knievel met Krystal Kennedy, a professional golfer 31 years his junior. They toured the US together playing golf for high stakes and generally having a wild time, before settling back in Butte. The couple married in 1999 at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas but were divorced a few years later.

Knievel continued to have brushes with the law. In 1995 he was arrested in California for carrying guns and knives in his car and ordered to do 200 hours community service, and the Inland Revenue Service pursued him for many years claiming $21m in unpaid taxes. He told the IRS that if they sent anyone round to his house, "I'll blow his head right off his shoulders".

His profile increased in the 1990s as nostalgia for the 1970s created a surge in demand for his endorsement of products from motorcycles to toys, and for personal appearances. But his health was already in decline, and in 1999 he had a liver transplant after nearly dying from hepatits C, contracted from one of the blood transfusions he had had during his many bouts in hospital.

Michael Roscoe

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