Death cheated Evel Knievel, taking him like any ordinary septugenarian, at home in bed, after years of declining health. For a man who'd made millions selling the potential spectacle of his public demise, shrouded in leather, flames, and the roar of the crowd, it must have been a disappointment, both aesthetically and financially.
His life, on the other hand, was a thrill ride, filled with so much visionary speed, noise, and hype that he remains relevant decades after he last did something newsworthy. Before the X Games, Jackass, and World's Widest Police Chases, there was Evel. Before rappers who make more off their clothing lines than their albums, there was Evel. He recognized there was a growing market for TV sports programming aimed at viewers with no patience for huddles, time-outs, and games that dragged on for hours. He understood his performances functioned mostly as advertising for the merchandise he could sell. He was post-Napster pre-Napster, a YouTube auteur before the rest of the world had even discovered their remote controls.
In 1965, the 27-year-old Knievel performed his first feat of premeditated daredevilry in Moses Lake, Washington. The young entrepreneur had opened a motorcycle dealership there and he thought jumping over two boxes of rattlesnakes and a couple of mountain lions would be a good way to drum up business.
A few years later, he left the motorcycle dealership behind and began his career as a professional showman. On New Year's Day, 1968, he jumped the fountains in front of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. To get the gig, he'd called up Caesar's owner Jay Sarno pretending to be a reporter from Life magazine who'd heard that one “Eval Nevall” was planning to perform this feat. Then he called Sarno again, pretending to be from Sports Illustrated. Then he called Sarno a third time, pretending to be from ABC Sports. When, at last, he called Sarno pretending to be his own agent, the casino owner itching to make a deal with the little-known stuntman that somehow everyone was talking about.
ABC Sports proved less manipulable. When the network declined to cover the event live, Knievel paid director John Derek to film it for him. Derek delegated some of the shooting responsibilities to his then-wife Linda Evans; it was she who captured the footage that would catapult Knievel.While he cleared the fountains easily at 80 mph, he botched his landing and lost control of his bike, going head over handlebars, then heels over head, head over heels, as the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat fused seamlessly into thirty seconds of pure cathode spectacle.
In slow motion, the action looked impossibly serene. Knievel's helmeted head bounced off the pavement with concussive beauty. His body tumbled down the ramp with a kind of mythic, go-with-the-flow grace. And while the flow happened to be snapping his ankles, crushing his pelvis, breaking his femur, cracking a wrist, fracturing a hip, and sending him into a month-long coma, it was doing so with virtually no visible carnage. It was hynoptic. It was beautiful. It was eminently viewable.
If some other aspiring daredevil had ever crashed in more TV-friendly fashion, he'd either lacked the foresight to capture it on celluloid or was the world's worst salesman. When Knievel, a salesman on par with P.T. Barnum, finally woke up in his hospital bed 29 days later, ABC Sports was eager to do business with him. And so was the rest of America. The enterprising 30-year-old had discovered the art of failing upward. Nailing a jump was good for business. Crashing was even better.
Over the next six years, Knievel attempted hundreds of jumps and failed often enough to require more than a dozen surgeries and frequent hospital stays. The jumps got longer; his outfits grew flashier. At the peak of his fame, he dressed like a patriotic pimp with superhero powers, accessorizing his white leather jumpsuit with a snazzy cape and a diamond-tipped walking stick filled with Wild Turkey.
There was no greater badass in the land, and because it was the 1970s, the golden age of badassery, it seemed perfectly natural to market a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing hellraiser who wrecked his body for money to impressionable kids. There were Evel Knievel action figures, Evel Knievel lunchboxes, Evel Knievel Halloween costumes, Evel Knievel pinball games. When reckless 12-year-olds rode their Evel Knievel bicycles off homemade ramps, perforating their intestines and rupturing their spleens, their parents brought Evel Knievel posters and board games to their hospital rooms to cheer them up.
In those days, Elvis was fat and Evel was king. He had a great big leonine head and an ornery gambler's grin. He was a slick, brash-talking promoter out to con the rubes. He was a rebel, a patriot, an outlaw dressed in white. He was cocky, ambitious, preachy, self-righteous, and in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, the star-spangled shot of old-fashioned American grit and determination that the country needed, living—if chronically injured—proof that with enough gas in the tank, we could do still do great things. Or at least leap a dozen Greyhound buses.
The beauty of Evel's act was its simplicity. He covered distances that were long enough to astonish, but not so long that they became too abstract to appreciate. He employed technology that was within reach of anyone within driving distance of a motorcycle dealership. Instead of space-suits, rocket ships, and command rooms filled with government scientists, he relied primarily on nerve. It made him easy to relate to, and also that much more mythic. You didn't have to be a NASA astronaut to attempt what he attempted. Anyone could give it a shot, and yet only he did.
His courage could only carry him so far, though. If he jumped thirteen buses, people wanted to see him jump fourteen. It was like being a comedian and not being allowed to tell the same joke twice. Eventually, you run out of jokes. His motorcycle couldn't go any further. He couldn't come any closer to killing himself than he already had. What could he possibly do to keep upping the ante?
His answer was the Snake River Canyon jump. From one side to the other, it was 1,600 feet. To cover this distance on an airborne motorcycle would require innovation, investment, months of careful planning. It was the redneck equivalent of the Apollo moon launch. And that was its fundamental flaw. It was too ambitious an undertaking. It was not something the average guy on a motorcycle could dream about doing himself. A NASA aerospace engineer built Knievel a vehicle that looked more like a miniature rocketship than a Harley. When Knievel climbed into its cockpit, only his helmet remained visible. The vital, visceral immediacy of his previous stunts was completely absent. The rebel cowboy barnstormer had morphed into an underfunded astronaut.
The stunt was a failure even before it began, but Knievel blasted off just the same. For the first few seconds, his miniature rocket ship shot toward the heavens. Then, when a parachute deployed too early, it slowed, its nose angled downward, and eventually it began a long, slow, anti-climatic free-fall toward the river below. Knievel would continue to make jumps for a few years after that. He would star in a movie, play golf, sign autographs for money. But even before he touched bottom that day, even before his Sky-Cycle drifted out of the TV cameras' view, obscured by the wall of the canyon, we were turning our attention elsewhere, starting to forget him. Look around today, however, and you can see his ghost everywhere.