Robert Craig Knievel Jr. (October 17, 1938 November 30, 2007), better known as Evel Knievel (pronounced KUH-nee-vel) was an American daredevil, entertainer, and painter, famous around the world for his death-defying stunts, and one of the great American icons of The '70s. He attempted over seventy-five ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps between 1965 and 1980, including a failed jump across Snake River Canyon in a steam-powered rocket. He suffered over 433 broken bones during his career, including his back seven times, earning him the dubious distinction in the Guinness World Records as "most bones broken in a lifetime".
He was born in Montana, the eldest of two children, abandoned by his parents and raised by his grandparents. A high-school dropout, Knievel worked at the copper mines with the Anaconda Mining Company, but found work boring compared to his motorbiking hobby. After making an earth mover do a wheelie, he drove it into Butte's main power line, disrupting power for several hours and losing his job as a result. In 1956, Knievel was jailed on a charge of reckless driving; when the night jailer came around, he noted Robert Knievel in one cell and William Knofel in the other. Since Knofel was known as "Awful Knofel", Knievel began referring to himself as "Evel Knievel" to match — intentionally misspelling "evil" to avoid the connotations of the word.
After his marriage and the birth of his son, Knievel tried to support his family by various means, eventually moving his family to Moses Lake, Washington; he worked at a motorcycle shop, where motocross racer Jim Pomeroy taught him how to do a "wheelie" and ride while standing on the seat of the bike. Recalling the Joie Chitwood Auto Daredevil shows of his youth, he decided to do the same thing with his motorcycle. Promoting the show himself, Knievel proceeded to jump a twenty-foot-long box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions.
Inspired by his success, Knievel went looking for someone to sponsor him, and found a motorcycle distributor who agreed to back the "Evel Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils" show. The debut was a huge success, and the offers soon flowed in. Knievel's reputation grew when he one-upped similar performers by jumping cars and vans. With each successful jump, the public wanted him to jump one more car. Knievel obliged them, not always successfully, but even his failures yielded publicity, and Knievel received national exposure when actor Joey Bishop had him as a guest of The Joey Bishop Show.
While visiting Las Vegas, Knievel decided to try jumping the fountains in front of the Caesars Palace casino, posing as lawyers from ABC Television to do so. A motorcycle malfunction caused him to crash in front of an audience of thousands, putting him in a coma for several weeks. His subsequent recovery made him even more famous than ever; ABC paid him handsomely for the rights to his film of the jump, even as his doctors were telling him that he might eventually end up crippling himself for life.
By 1968, Knievel returned to jumping, earning approximately $25,000 per weekly performance. In the early seventies, he made numerous crowd-packing jumps, including back-to-back performances at the Houston Astrodome in 1971, nineteen cars at the Ontario Motor Speedway, and fifty stacked cars at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1973 (his first appearance on ABC Television's "Wide World of Sports"). He attempted to leap the Snake River Canyon in Idaho in 1974 using a custom-built steam-powered rocket, but the drogue parachute deployed early, dragging him back into the canyon even after clearing it. Knievel announced his retirement several times after that, but would inevitably return to motorcycle jumping; he only stopped in 1976 after a failed rehearsal caused a cameraman to lose an eye. Afterward, Knievel retired from major performances, limiting his appearances to promotional shows for his youngest son, Robbie Knievel. Evel Knievel's last appearance was in 1981.
Evel Knievel was a major American icon in The '70s, in no small part due to his relentless efforts to promote his own image as "The Last Gladiator". He became a national icon thanks to ABC's Wide World of Sports, appearing seven times in three years; his 1975 jump of 14 Greyhound buses at King's Island amusement park remains the show's highest-rated, and five of Knievel's appearances still rank among the show's top twenty. He sought endorsement deals with various motorcycle companies, was featured in a movie and two made-for-television films, recorded a self-titled album in 1974, and made numerous appearances on Talk Shows and television programs. The Ideal Toy Company released a series of Knievel-related merchandise, toys, and dolls, grossing more than $300 million worth, while Bally released a pinball machine about him in 1977. Evel Knievel was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999, on the 25th anniversary of the Snake River Canyon jump, and Jeff Beck produced a rock opera based on Knievel's life in 2003.
Knievel died of pulmonary disease in 2007, at the age of 69. In 2008, Six Flags St. Louis debuted The Evel Knievel Roller Coaster at the park, and Knievel's son Robbie jumped a motorcycle over 25 Dodge Chargers as part of the commemorative season. In 2010, a special exhibit entitled "TRUE EVEL: The Amazing Story of Evel Knievel" premiered at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee.
Tropes as portrayed in fiction:
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Fictional motorbike daredevils have a good chance of being modelled after him, such as Captain Lance Murdock on The Simpsons, "Fender Roads" (the disguise Basher Tarr uses) in Ocean's Thirteen, Vile Kyle on Duckman or Duke Caboom in Toy Story 4.
Appears in the following works:
- Biopic: Years before the much better known (and much more fictional) movie below, and decades before the identically-titled Made-for-TV Movie, came the first (apparently fairly accurate) cinematic portrayal of Knievel's life. Made with his cooperation, the 1971 movie Evel Knievel makes extensive use of Flashbacks to his juvenile delinquent youth and subsequent rise to fame from his present-day preparation for a major jump. It was script-doctored by John Milius, who would become well-known as a writer & director of action pictures in the 70s & 80s, and directed by Marvin Chomsky, who would not (though in fairness, Chomsky did do well in TV, collecting 4 Emmys in his career). Produced by and starring George Hamilton (who would repeat his actor/producer combo role, much more financially successfully, in Love at First Bite and Zorro, the Gay Blade), it also starred Sue Lyon as Evel's long-suffering wife. Even if you're not an Evel fan, it's well worth a look as an example of a B-Movie of the era.
- Licensed Pinball Table: Released by Bally in 1977. Click here for details.
- The Movie: Viva Knievel!; the parts relating to his stunt career are Based on a True Story, and the rest is Very Loosely Based on Reality As We Know It. Somehow, though, the producers did enlist the talents of an astonishingly varied cast, including Lauren Hutton, Monday Night Football announcer Frank Gifford, former child televangelist Marjoe Gortner, Red Buttons, Dabney Coleman, Leslie Nielsen and Gene Kelly!
- The Pepper Ann episode Beyond Good And Evel, As Himself.