Between the opening chords of a
successful rock opera and the first screams of joy at a brand new
rollercoaster, there was Evel Knievel’s last breath, with
supplemental oxygen. Knievel died at 69 on Nov. 30 in his Clearwater,
Flo., home – sick with diabetes, scarred lungs, and hepatitis.
But he had survived numerous
operations, about 40 broken bones, a liver transplant, and a failed
attempt to cross the Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered
The Smithsonian Institution has called
him “the ultimate American daredevil,” and his toys have made
$300 million. He was the subject of a rock opera that opened to good
reviews in Los Angeles this fall and is the inspiration for a new
“high-energy” roller coaster that will open at Six Flags, St.
Louis next year.
Knievel, who was born Robert Craig
Knievel in 1938 at Butte, Mont., said that he got the name “Evel”
from a policeman after being arrested for stealing hubcaps. He
changed an “i” to an “e” and then made it legal.
He began his
stunt riding career in 1965 with Evel Knievel’s Motorcycle
Daredevils, became an overnight star when he crashed spectacularly at
Caesar’s Palace on New Year’s Day 1968, and was turned into a
superstar by seven appearances on ABC’s Wide World of Sports from
1973 to 1976. His failed attempt to rocket over the Snake River
Canyon (a parachute deployed on take-off, ruining the jump) was
probably the most spectacular stunt ever attempted before a live TV
Although destined for great fame,
Knievel was a bit of a rogue whose stardom was bookmarked with dirty
little escapades. He claimed to have been a card thief, a safe
cracker, and a hold-up man before achieving success with flying
motorcycles, and in 1977, his high-flying career began to stall when
he was sentenced to six months in jail for attacking a former
television executive with a baseball bat. He was arrested for
soliciting an undercover cop in 1986.
In 1999, after contracting hepatitis C
(most likely from a transfusion during one of his many post-stunt
operations) Knievel was given a new liver. But he suffered from
diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis, and had endured two strokes in
recent years. At 69 years old, the man who attempted to become an
astronaut on a motorcycle was hardly able to move on his own and had
taken to selling autographs and hawking mobility scooters. His death
due to respiratory problems was not entirely surprising.
He will be buried under a tombstone that
he had made ready for him at the time of his Snake River Canyon
attempt, and a public service will be held at the Butte, Mont., Civic
Centre on Nov. 10.
Can’t get enough Evel? Here are some sites worth a click.
Review of Knievel rock opera: www.latimes.com
Musical tribute: youtube.com
Time magazine obit: www.time.com