Evel Knievel: The Legend as an Old Man
Evel Knievel, the stuntman who was a pop culture icon in the 1970s, is much older than his 67 years, battered by his numerous injuries and suffering from debilitating illnesses. AP has an interesting profile.
On bad days, Knievel wishes he had gone into another line of work. On better days, he doesn’t regret a minute. Lung disease sometimes makes it hard for him to talk, but his stories still drip with swagger. He can be kind and gracious one minute, irascible and profane the next.
Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable condition, is scarring and hardening his lungs. He’s recovering from a stroke and has diabetes. He’s broken about 40 bones, is full of plates and titanium parts and is constantly in pain. Repeated concussions have affected his short-term memory. The man who survived 300 perilous motorcycle jumps and once climbed into a rocket-powered cycle to fly over a canyon, now stays close to an oxygen tank, ingests 50 pills a day and sucks on lollipops that deliver fentanyl, a heavy-duty painkiller. “People think I’ve been through something in my life from what they’ve seen on national television, my accident at Caesars Palace for instance,” Knievel says. “Look at what the hell I’m going through now. How much can the human body endure?”
His personal appearance days might be numbered, but one thing’s for sure — some 25 years after his last motorcycle jump, people still want a piece of Robert Craig Knievel, American folk hero. The man who made millions risking his life earns a decent living now at the kitchen table signing thousands of autographs for dealers to resell. He endorses a few products and until recently made regular paid appearances with a 40-foot trailer full of his motorcycles and other curiosities, including the wrecked Skycycle he used in the unsuccessful jump at Snake River Canyon in Idaho in 1974. The Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle, one of the best-selling toys of the ’70s, is being sold again by Ideal Toys. The auction Web site eBay lists hundreds of Evel items for sale, from jigsaw puzzles to pinball machines. An Evel Knievel rock opera is in the works, and the Country Music Television channel will examine his life in a program May 28. He’s done a couple TV cameos recently and still gets stacks of fan letters.
“Over time his legend has kind of snowballed,” says Knievel biographer Steve Mandich. Other daredevils, including son Robbie, have made longer jumps, but Knievel was the original article, a brash showman in his signature red, white-and-blue leathers. Oddly enough, the horrific crashes, many captured by ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” cameras, made him even more popular.
I never had an Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle, being more a G.I. Joe with Kung Fu Grip kid, but watched a good many of his stunts on “Wide World of Sports,” including that infamous attempted jump over the Snake River Canyon a couple months before my 9th birthday.
It’s interesting that there’s a resurgence of interest in Knievel, who has been retired for more than thirty years and largely out of the spotlight. There is, I think, a wistfulness for an era when we shared such events as a nation. In the era of three television networks, and before pay-per-view sporting events, things like Knievel stunts or championship boxing bouts were watched by the lion’s share of the country. Now, with the exception of the Super Bowl, there’s nothing like that. Even major sporting events, like the World Series or NBA Championship, are niche events when there are 200 channels to choose from. Even such phenomena as “American Idol” are still watched by a far smaller share of the population than watched Knievel’s jumps.