Evel Knievel died a few days ago. Except for the parts of him that were plastic or titanium, he was 69.
Knievel pretty much created the modern version of the daredevil. Obviously, stunt men existed prior to his popularity, but they were primarily gentlemen riding their penny-farthings dodging U-boats and avoiding the Great Depression. Knievel made daredeviling sexy, exciting, and, apparently, a verb.
He grew up, as most famous men do, doing a mundane job—in this case, insurance salesman—in a mundane city—in this case, Butte, Montana. Of course, there was a roundabout way of getting to that point, since his previous occupations were poacher, burglar, hockey goon, and semi-pro Olympic swindler. When the dust that was Evel Knievel’s life was deciding which way it wanted to settle, it had a choice between insurance and riding motorcycles over a dozen Mustangs set on fire. Fortunately for forty-year-olds wanting to by overprices nostalgic kitsch on online auction sites, it chose the latter.
Some say Knievel was more a product of the law of averages than any innate ability. To be certain, most of his stunts ended in what most people would consider an unmitigated disaster, usually with a hip or a leg or a collarbone shattered. If that happened to me I would cry like a woman all the way to my insurance carrier. Then again, when your body is full of morphine and cocaine you tend to not notice such minor details as a bone sticking out a few inches out of your shin.
But that doesn’t negate the sheer brute force of Knievel’s method. Sure, he jumped a lot of Greyhounds and avoided a lot of flaming hoops, but just as often as not he ended up ass over teakettle with a $25,000 motorbike landing on top of him. Still, it didn’t matter so long as he was able to give the peace sign and a big smile while paramedics tried to locate all of his organs. In fact, audiences grew larger and larger not when he jumped one more car than he previously could, but when his concussion lasted another day longer that he previously did.
As any true talented person will do, it wasn’t so much the inherent skill required to pull off the stunts that was important; it was the marketing thereof. As such, Knievel’s trips throughout America and abroad were just as much about good television and sportsmanship as it was selling a brand. As such, Knievel’s persona, complete with the tacky faux patriotic jumpsuit and feigned bravado, made more money through lunchboxes, puffy stickers, and motorcycles than his shows did. In fact, after decades of bone-crunching injury, he still made mass amounts of money on merchandizing afterwards without setting foot one in a rocket, motorbike, or rocket-propelled motorbike again.
Towards the late 1970’s, after a few false promises of hanging up the ramps, he retired from the daredevil business. Astoundingly, his leaving didn’t really create that much of a gap, since no one has yet to take his place. Some would say that his death ushered in a golden age of “extreme” sports, so the thousands of professional snowboarders and skateboarders are, at least in spirit, taking over from Evel. If the street punk down the block from me breaks his nose apart on the pavement trying to do a third-grade kickflip on the makeshift half-pipe he made from plywood scraps long enough to stop stealing my newspaper, then I’m all for the spiritual succession theory.
Of course, as Knievel liked to ride fast, he liked to live fast, too. His post-daredevil life was full of booze and hookers, which ultimately ended up with his wife leaving him and his being estranged from his son. He was charged with assault and firearms charges due to what he insists were publicity stunts but were, as they always were, and old, broken man (in more ways than one) trying to life his former glory days through a series of meaningless misdemeanors. And all the money he made selling Evel Knievel washrags and dustbins went to procuring even more women and alcohol. Broke and no longer able to jump buses, he scraped by, making ends meet by not paying taxes. Knievel may have been able to soar over canyons, mountain lions, and flaming vehicles, but he certainly couldn’t evade the Internal Revenue Service.
Of course, it’s also true that Knievel’s talent not weigh with his stuntwork but with his high tolerance level. This minimizes his actual abilities—I can’t wake up and get off of the mattress without misjudging the distance from the end of my toe to that big metal thing that hangs down from the edge of my bed that I’m too lazy to find out why it’s there—but offers a rather lucrative outlet for failure. He found that pulse of marketing few are able to find: if he was successful and made the jump, he displayed skill and courage; if he failed, he displayed perseverance and tolerance. Either was, more tickets were sold. If only the famously uneven careers of, say, Kevin Costner or Bob Shrum could capitalize from that particular philosopher’s stone.