Daredevil stuntman Evel Knievel dies at the age of 69

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Evel Knievel, the 1970s daredevil who spent his life defying death in front of millions with seemingly impossible motorcycle jumps, has died from illness behind closed doors. He was 69.

Knievel's death was announced by his granddaughter Krysten last night, and came after years of ill-health, including an incurable lung condition.

His promoter and longtime friend Billy Rundel said Knievel had had trouble breathing at his Florida home, and died before an ambulance could get him to a hospital. "It's been coming for years," Mr Rundel said, "but you just don't expect it. Superman just doesn't die, right?"

Knievel had undergone a liver transplant in 1999 after nearly dying of hepatitis C, probably transmitted during a blood transfusion from one of his jumps.

He rose to fame during the Vietnam War at a time when the US was looking for colour and entertainment.

Later dubbed America's Legendary Daredevil, he promoted good health and abstention from drugs to the country's young. Born in the copper mining town of Butte, Montana, in 1938, Robert Craig Knievel was raised by his grandparents from the age of 6 after his parents divorced.

Amischievous boy, Knievel was taken, aged eight, to Joey Chitwood's Auto Daredevil Show. He later credited this as the inspiration for his career choice.

He took to impressing friends by creating jumps with his push bike. "I was always coming home with cuts and bruises," said Knievel. "My poor grandparents didn't know what to do with me."

At 13, he got a taste of his future life when, showing off his first motorbike, he crashed it into a neighbour's garage. The bike's gas tank ruptured and the explosion set the garage on fire.

Despite brushes with the law, Kneivel was becoming popular, even among police.

His brother said: "He was the kind of kid that, even when he was being bad, he did it with a kind of boldness and humor that you couldn't stay mad at him."

In 1965 he formed a touring show in which he rode through rings of fire and over rattlesnakes.

On New Year's Day, 1968, Knievel made his name with a jump across the fountains at Caesar's Palace in Las Vagas. ABC news showed him crash-landing and suffering severe injuries. It became one of the most popular of all sports clips.

In 1971, some 60,000 watched him jump across the Houston Astrodome.

And in 1974 came the jump for which he is most famous the attempt to cross the Snake River Canyon in Idaho. "I didn't think I even had a 50-50 chance to make it," he said later. "When I punched that power button I thought, 'God, here I come'." Just after launch the cycle's parachute sprung and Knievel fell to the riverbank below, escaping with minor injuries.

Next year in London he attempted a row of 13 double- decker buses in front of his biggest crowd 90,000 atWembley. He failed and broke his pelvis. He enjoyed a renaissance in the Nineties, starring in television adverts.

Earlier this year, Knievel declared at a packed Palm Sunday service at the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California, that he had turned to Christianity. He said that, for 68 years, he had refused to accept religion because of "the gold and the gambling and the booze and the women".

Jumping into the history books

* Knievel features in the Guinness Book of World Records for 35 broken bones from numerous jumps

* 1968: Nearly killed in 151 feet (46 meters) jump across the fountains at Caesar's Palace. In a coma for a month

* 1971: 60,000 watch him jump the Houston Astrodome

* 1974: One of his most famous jumps was across Idaho's Snake River Canyon. Despite the purpose-built $150,000 (£75,000) Sky-Cycle failing to make any of the practice crossings, Knievel, undeterred, pressed ahead, knowing it was, literally, a long shot

* 1975: Jumps 13 buses at Wembley Stadium in London the crash landing broke his pelvis

* 1975: Jumps 14 Greyhound buses at Kings Island in Ohio