The quintessential American daredevil motorcyclist, Evel Knievel defied gravity as he rode his bike to the heights of international fame in increasingly challenging, thrilling stunts.
Knievel’s popularity transcended the world of motorcycling. During the early 1970s, Knievel was one of the best known celebrities in the world. His jumps attracted thousands of spectators and millions more watched on television.
Knievel reached the zenith of his popularity in 1974, prior to his ill-fated jump over the Snake River Canyon in Idaho in a jet-powered “Skycycle.” At least two feature films and numerous books were made on Knievel’s life. After years of relative obscurity, Knievel enjoyed a renewal of popularity in the 1990s and was featured in television commercials. A number of television specials retold the story of his life and times.
Born in the wide-open copper mining town of Butte, Montana, on October 17, 1938, Robert Craig Knievel was raised by his grandparents from the age of 6. At age 8, he saw Joey Chitwood's Auto Daredevil Show, which he later credited for his career choice. As a kid, he loved showing off to the other neighborhood kids. One of his favorite stunts was jumping his bicycle.
“I was always coming home with cuts and bruises,” Knievel remembered. “My poor grandparents didn’t know what to do with me.”
At 13, Knievel got his first motorcycle, but crashed it into a neighbor’s garage while showing off, nearly catching the garage on fire when the bike’s gas tank ruptured.
As a teenager, Knievel was always getting in trouble with the local police for petty crimes. Despite his mischievous reputation, the townsfolk and even the police liked Knievel.
“He was the kind of kid that even when he was being bad he did it with a certain kind of boldness and humor that you couldn’t stay mad at him,” said Knievel’s brother in a television interview.
In 1959, Knievel eloped and, at the age of 20, began a string of short-lived jobs. He worked in the copper mines as a contract miner, skip tender and diamond drill operator. In 1962, Knievel broke his collarbone and shoulder in a motorcycle race. While on the mend, he took a job as an insurance salesman. He later worked at a motorcycle dealership in Washington state, drumming up business by offering $100 off of the price of a motorcycle to anyone who could beat him at arm wrestling.
During this time Knievel’s mischievousness, which was endearing at a young age, turned into a life of crime as a young adult. He landed in jail for robbery more than once. When one of his partners was shot, he decided it was time to get his act together and turn his back on crime.
In 1965, he began his daredevil career when he formed a troupe called Evel Knievel's Motorcycle Daredevils, a touring show in which he performed stunts such as riding through walls of fire and jumping over live rattlesnakes and mountain lions. The name Evel came from one of Knievel’s early sponsors, who wanted to call him Evil, but settled on Evel after Knievel complained that he didn’t want to convey an image of a bad person.
In 1966, he began touring alone, saying that it was too much trouble having employees. Barnstorming the western states, Evel did everything himself, including truck driving, ramp erecting, promoting and performing his ever-longer and more dangerous motorcycle jumps. It was rough going in the early days, and Knievel barely scraped together a living, but he had finally found something he truly enjoyed.
Knievel’s big break (literally and figuratively) came on New Years Day, 1968, when he jumped 151 feet across the fountains in front of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Knievel had talked the owner of Caesar’s Palace into letting him do the stunt as publicity for the casino. He’d also talked to ABC about filming the jump. While the network turned it down, they at least told him if he had it taped they would consider showing it. Then, up-and-coming filmmaker John Derek taped the jump. After successfully clearing the fountains, his landing was a disaster and his injuries put him in the hospital, but the footage of the jump and crash landing did make ABC’s Wide World of Sports and thrust Knievel into the national spotlight.
After the Caesar’s Palace jump, Knievel was suddenly in demand and began performing in front of packed stadiums. In January of 1971, he jumped in front of 60,000 spectators in the Houston Astrodome.
With America in the midst of the Vietnam War quagmire, the country was looking for a hero, and Knievel’s death-defying feats and his popular messages to the world's youth, promoting abstention from drugs and a healthy lifestyle with a positive mental attitude quickly transformed him into a national icon.
The inspiration for jumping the Snake River Canyon came while sitting in a bar with a friend.
“There was a picture of the Grand Canyon on the wall and my friend said, ‘That’s what you oughta jump.’” He was unable to get permission to jump the Grand Canyon, so he bought a piece of land in Idaho’s Snake River Canyon and made plans to jump the quarter-mile-wide chasm.
Knievel hired former Navy engineer Bob Truax to build a rocket-powered Skycycle. The Skycycle cost over $150,000 and was unsuccessful in clearing the canyon in test runs. Despite this, Knievel decided to make the attempt.
“I didn’t think I even had a 50-50 chance to make it,” Knievel remembers. “Everyone told me not to do it, but I was determined to keep my word, so I climbed up and got strapped in. When I punched that power button I thought, ‘God, here I come.’”
The parachute of the Skycycle deployed almost immediately after launching and Knievel fell to the riverbank hundreds of feet down in the canyon. He escaped with minor injuries.
Knievel had quickly become a wealthy man but spent lavishly. Knievel admits that holding onto money wasn’t his strong suit.
“The country singer Garth Brooks once said that he’s made more money than he could ever spend,” quipped Knievel. “Write me a check Garth – I’ll show you how to spend it in 24 hours.”
In May of 1975, Knievel jumped in front of his largest crowd ever when 90,000 came to Wembley Stadium in London to watch him unsuccessfully attempt to jump a row of double-decker buses. Later that year, another stunt set a new audience viewing record for ABC's Wide World of Sports, with 52% of households share, when his Kings Island jump was broadcast.
Two major motion pictures by Warner Bros. have featured Knievel: "Evel Knievel," starring George Hamilton as Evel in his life story, and "Viva Knievel," a thriller starring Evel as himself. Viacom Productions did a made-for-TV movie starring Sam Elliot as Evel, plus Evel again starred as himself with Lindsey Wagner in an episode of the popular 1980s TV series "Bionic Woman."
In the mid-1970s, Evel Knievel Toys and other products such as pinball machines, bicycles, watches, radios and other accessory items sold millions. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.
By the late-1970s, Knievel’s heyday was over. A highly publicized assault on the author of a Knievel biography led to a jail sentence. While he continued jumping into the early-1980s, he was never able to recapture the popularity he’d attained in the mid-1970s.
In a career as an artist in the 1980s, he painted mostly Western and wildlife scenes and sold thousands of limited-edition prints in art galleries nationwide.
His motorcycle and memorabilia were displayed by the Smithsonian Institute in its Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The Museum immortalized him as America's Legendary Daredevil. He is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having broken 35 bones.
Knievel was diagnosed with hepatitis and had a liver transplant in 1999.
He was a generous contributor to charities and promoted the work of the "Make a Wish Foundation," an organization that arranges the fulfillment of the dreams of children suffering from terminal illnesses.
He married his hometown girlfriend, Linda Joan Bork, in 1959. They separated in the early 1990s. They had four children: Kelly, Robbie, Tracey and Alicia. Robbie followed in his father's footsteps as a daredevil.
Knievel married Krystal Kennedy in 1999. They divorced a few years later but remained together.
Evel Knievel died on November 30, 2007. He was 69.