Friday, November 30, 2007
Evel Knievil 1938-2007
Dang. Legendary daredevil Evel Knievil died today at the age of 69. He had been in failing health in recent years, suffering from diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable condition that scarred his lungs. To say he was an icon to my generation would be an understatement. Pretty much every kid in the 70's watched his exploits on "ABC's Wild World of Sports," and many (like myself) had a t-shirt bearing his unmistakable Clint Eastwood-meets-Elvis image or the rubbery Evel action figure with wind-up motorcycle that was made to bounce around, tumble and then always right itself. In fact, a recent story stated that Evel Knievel toys accounted for more than $300 million in sales for Ideal and other companies in the 1970s and '80s. Not too shabby.
He is, of course, most famous for attempting to jump his motorcycle over increasingly outlandish obstacles, as well as crashing much of the time. Sure, he completed some jumps, but later, when he became super-popular, he mostly crashed in spectacular fashion. It seems he would always clear the obstacle but fail to stick the landing, and big trouble would ensue. He was fearless in every sense of the word, and he was paid handsomely for it.
Which led me to develop the following thought: Evel Knievil was the
most / least successful big name personality ever. That is, his level of fame was nearly peerless ( arguably only Muhammad Ali was bigger at the time) and he made a ton of money, yet he often failed to do what he set out to do. He really wasn't paid to accomplish his ballsy feats; he was paid to attempt them. And attempt them he did, and for this due credit must be given.
His first really big media event was on New Year's Day 1968, when he was nearly killed when he jumped 151 feet across the fountains in front of Caesar's Palace. He cleared the fountains, but bounced on the ramp, fell off the bike and ended up looking like Beetle Bailey after Sarge beat him up. The crash landing put him in the hospital in a coma for a month. Behold, the famous slow-mo footage of the crash, second only to the 1967 Patterson/Gimlin Bigfoot film in terms of memorability to dudes my age:
In the years after the Caesar's crash, the fee for Evel's performances soared. In accordance with my theory, once he failed spectacularly, he got more successful. He was paid $1 million to jump over 13 buses at Wembley Stadium in London (the crash landing broke his pelvis). In the early to mid 70's, $1 million was a huge sum. I mean, it still, is but it represented a massive payday back then, considering professional football players made like $60k a year around then.
Then came the biggie, and event I clearly remember watching live: Evel was paid 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." In particular, I remember that there was an endless amount of pre-jump coverage (2 hours?) that my 6 year-old mind could barely tolerate. Then, after what seemed to be an eternity, the moment of take-off arrived. And then 13 or so seconds later, the failed event was over. The Skycycle parachute malfunctioned and deployed after takeoff, and strong winds then blew the cycle into the canyon, landing him close to the swirling river below.
On Oct. 25, 1975, he successfully jumped 14 Greyhound buses at Kings Island in Ohio. But Evel decided to retire after he suffered a concussion and broke both arms in an attempt to jump a tank full of live sharks in the Chicago Amphitheater in the winter of 1976 (this was just after "Jaws" and everyone was shark-crazy - Fonzie was water-skiing over sharks, Evel was jumping them, etc). I remember watching this one live too, probably clutching my Evel action-figure as I did so.
I saw an "E True Hollywood Story" episode about Evel a couple of years ago, where he told of a comeback stunt he had dreamed up that no one would dare sponsor: he wanted to jump out of an airplane with no parachute and attempt to safely land in a large bale of hay. Shades of Wile E. Coyote, no?
In 2006 he was quoted thusly: "No king or prince has lived a better life." What he probably meant was "No king or prince has been more famous, broken more bones, popped more painkillers, drank more booze, snorted more coke, banged more chicks, sold more merchandise or made as many people cheer." And he'd be right.