Evel Knievel dies at 69; had long been in failing health
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Evel Knievel, the red-white-and-blue-spangled motorcycle daredevil whose jumps over crazy obstacles including Greyhound buses, live sharks and Idaho's Snake River Canyon made him an international icon in the 1970s, died Friday. He was 69.
Knievel's death was confirmed by his granddaughter, Krysten Knievel. He had been in failing health for years, suffering from diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable condition that scarred his lungs.
Knievel had undergone a liver transplant in 1999 after nearly dying of hepatitis C, likely contracted through a blood transfusion after one of his bone-shattering spills. He also suffered two strokes in recent years.
Longtime friend and promoter Billy Rundle said Knievel had trouble breathing at his Clearwater condominium and died before an ambulance could get him to a hospital.
"It's been coming for years, but you just don't expect it. Superman just doesn't die, right?" Rundle said.
Immortalized in the Washington's Smithsonian Institution as "America's Legendary Daredevil," Knievel was best known for a failed 1974 attempt to jump Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered cycle and a spectacular crash at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. He suffered nearly 40 broken bones before he retired in 1980.
"I think he lived 20 years longer than most people would have" after so many injuries, said his son Kelly Knievel, 47. "I think he willed himself into an extra five or six years."
Though Knievel dropped off the pop culture radar in the '80s, the image of the high-flying motorcyclist clad in patriotic, star-studded colors was never erased from public consciousness. He always had fans and enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years.
"I always wanted to live to about 70. I thought that'd be a good age," Knievel said in an interview with Vanity Fair for a story that will run in the magazine's February issue. "I have my tombstone already. A tombstone company in the East gave it to me when I jumped Snake Canyon. My plot is in Montana.
"All my life people have been waitin' around to watch me die. But I'm still here. I really think that there is a hereafter and this is just a testing ground. Years ago I was just helter-skelter. I defied death. And I'm still doing it -- only from a bed instead of a bike. There's just no quit in me. There's just no stopping me. I went through life big-bang-bada-boom-bada-boom. Now it's just bing, but I'm still Evel Knievel. I am. There's just nothing you could do to stop me."
His death came just two days after it was announced that he and rapper Kanye West had settled a federal lawsuit over the use of Knievel's trademarked image in a popular West music video.
Knievel made a good living selling his autographs and endorsing products. Thousands came to Butte, Mont., every year as his legend was celebrated during the "Evel Knievel Days" festival, which Rundle organizes.
"They started out watching me bust my ass, and I became part of their lives," Knievel said. "People wanted to associate with a winner, not a loser. They wanted to associate with someone who kept trying to be a winner."
For the tall, thin daredevil, the limelight was always comfortable, the gab glib. To Knievel, there were always mountains to climb, feats to conquer.
"No king or prince has lived a better life," he said in a May 2006 interview with The Associated Press. "You're looking at a guy who's really done it all. And there are things I wish I had done better, not only for me but for the ones I loved."
He had a knack for outrageous yarns: "Made $60 million, spent 61. ... Lost $250,000 at blackjack once. ... Had $3 million in the bank, though."
He began his daredevil career in 1965 when he formed a troupe called Evel Knievel's Motorcycle Daredevils, a touring show in which he performed stunts such as riding through fire walls, jumping over live rattlesnakes and mountain lions and being towed at 200 mph behind dragster race cars.
In 1966 he began touring alone, barnstorming the West and doing everything from driving the trucks, erecting the ramps and promoting the shows. In the beginning he charged $500 for a jump over two cars parked between ramps.
He steadily increased the length of the jumps until, on New Year's Day 1968, he was nearly killed when he jumped 151 feet across the fountains in front of Caesar's Palace. He cleared the fountains but the crash landing put him in the hospital in a coma for a month.
His son, Robbie, successfully completed the same jump in April 1989.
Evel Knievel's Last Interview
Evel Knievel's last major interview was with Vanity Fair. Some excerpts are below.
On defying death:
"I always wanted to live to about 70. I thought that'd be a good age... I have my tombstone already. A tombstone company in the East gave it to me when I jumped Snake Canyon. My plot is in Montana. All my life people have been waitin' around to watch me die. But I'm still here. I really think that there is a hereafter and this is just a testing ground. Years ago I was just helter-skelter. I defied death. And I'm still doing it -- only from a bed instead of a bike. There's just no quit in me."
"You'll be my last interview," he says. "No more after these. I don't want to die," he admits, staring straight at me. Then, as if to provide a macho corrective, he changes course. "I don't want to say this to insult my doctors, who I have great admiration for, but doctors are like a--holes: everybody's got one."
On current President Bush:
A Barry Goldwater Republican, with a special admiration held for Harry Truman, Knievel steams at the mere mention of George W. Bush. "Believe me," he says, "we need this Bush like we need a hole in the head. This guy made a terrible mistake going into Iraq. Why we left it up to him to make that decision is beyond me. What is the matter with the sheep in this goddamn country?"
On extreme sports today:
"Those extreme-sports kids today are good but they have it easy. Try falling off of a motorcycle going 70 or 80 miles per hour on asphalt. Believe me, nothing equals it. That damn asphalt bites back, just massacring your body. It just shreds your flesh and shatters your bones."
The full story will run in the February issue of Vanity Fair. To read an excerpt, click here.
In the years after the Caesar's crash, the fee for Evel's performances increased to $1 million for his jump over 13 buses at Wembley Stadium in London -- the crash landing broke his pelvis -- to more than $6 million for the Sept. 8, 1974, attempt to clear the Snake River Canyon in Idaho in a rocket-powered "Skycycle." The money came from ticket sales, paid sponsors and ABC's "Wide World of Sports."
The parachute malfunctioned and deployed after takeoff. Strong winds blew the cycle into the canyon, landing him close to the swirling river below.
On Oct. 25, 1975, he jumped 14 Greyhound buses at Kings Island in Ohio.
Knievel decided to retire after a jump in the winter of 1976 in which he was again seriously injured. He suffered a concussion and broke both arms in an attempt to jump a tank full of live sharks in the Chicago Amphitheater. He continued to do smaller exhibitions around the country with Robbie Knievel.
Many of his records have been broken by daredevil motorcyclist Bubba Blackwell.
Knievel also dabbled in movies and TV, starring as himself in "Viva Knievel" and with Lindsay Wagner in an episode of the 1980s TV series "Bionic Woman." George Hamilton and Sam Elliott each played Knievel in movies about his life.
Knievel toys accounted for more than $300 million in sales for Ideal and other companies in the 1970s and '80s.
Born Robert Craig Knievel in the copper mining town of Butte on Oct. 17, 1938, Knievel was raised by his grandparents. He traced his career choice back to the time he saw Joey Chitwood's Auto Daredevil Show at age 8.
"The phrase 'one of a kind' is often used, but it probably applies best to Bobby Knievel," said former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., Knievel's cousin. "He was an amazing athlete. ... He was sharp as a tack, one of the smartest people I've ever known and finally, as the world knows, no one had more guts than Bobby. He was simply unafraid of anything."
"He was no dummy," said high school classmate Sonny Holland, the former Montana State football star and coach. "I'll never forget a poem that he made up when we were seniors about his friends and the people he hung out with. It was incredible. Everybody was just astounded when he recited it in front of the whole school."
Outstanding in track and field, ski jumping and ice hockey at Butte High School, Knievel went on to win the Northern Rocky Mountain Ski Association Class A Men's ski jumping championship in 1957 and played with the Charlotte Clippers of the Eastern Hockey League in 1959.
He also formed the Butte Bombers semiprofessional hockey team, acting as owner, manager, coach and player.
Knievel also worked in the Montana copper mines, served in the Army, ran his own hunting guide service, sold insurance and ran Honda motorcycle dealerships. As a motorcycle dealer, he drummed up business by offering $100 off the price of a motorcycle to customers who could beat him at arm wrestling.
At various times and in different interviews, Knievel claimed to have been a swindler, a card thief, a safe cracker, a holdup man.
It's been coming for years, but you just don't expect it. Superman just doesn't die, right?
-- Friend Billy Rundle
Robbie Knievel followed in his father's footsteps as a daredevil, jumping a moving locomotive in a 200-foot, ramp-to-ramp motorcycle stunt on live television in 2000. He also jumped a 200-foot-wide chasm of the Grand Canyon.
Knievel lived with his longtime partner, Krystal Kennedy-Knievel, splitting his time between their Clearwater condo and Butte. They married in 1999 and divorced a few years later but remained together. Knievel had 10 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.