Evel Knievel jumped canyons, cars and Pepsi delivery trucks, but not without breaking nearly every bone in his body. In the new book, Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend, author Leigh Montville tells the story of a daredevil driven to risky stunts in search of fame.
Bill speaks with Leigh Montville about his new book. (Click here for an excerpt.)
Download our podcast for an extended version of the Montville interview.
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Bill’s Thoughts on Evel
Evel Knievel talked a good game.
It’s not surprising that he was a terrific insurance salesman.
According to some expert motorcyclists with whom Leigh Montville, the author of Evel, conversed, Evel Knievel was not an especially good motorcyclist.
He was sometimes good at riding a motorcycle up a ramp and over various things: cars, busses, and lions, for example. Snakes, fountains and canyons, not so much. He crashed a lot, and built a significant portion of his reputation by showing people film of the crashes.
For a time, Evel Knievel was good at making money, but even on his best days at it, he was much better at spending money.
Leigh Montville’s biography of Knievel is funny, sad, and revealing. Finally, Evel is the story of a man who conned an extraordinary number of people into paying attention to his stunts until the day came when he could no longer fool even any of the people any of the time.
Evel should be required reading for anybody who plans to vote in any election, anywhere.
Book Excerpt: “Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil and Legend”
by Leigh Montville
He walks onto the black-and-white screen a few minutes after midnight wearing a zebra- striped leisure suit. There is a quick thought that something might be wrong with the television this late at night. Static of some kind in the neighborhood. An electrical malfunction. No, the stripes only move when Evel Knievel moves. This is his outfit.
He is a one-man test pattern. The collar on the leisure suit is exaggerated, Edwardian, huge. The pants fl are out at the end, bell- bottoms. His white leather kick- ass boots, which stick out from the edges of the bell- bottoms, would be suitable for either a well-dressed gang fight or an open- ended night in a Las Vegas cocktail lounge. The stripes on the leisure suit— back to the stripes— are random, run every which way, as if somebody had splashed white paint across a black background. The effect is dramatic. He is a work of modern art, certainly a piece of work, a cat on the prowl.
He is here to be on The Dick Cavett Show. He has dressed for the occasion.
“My next guest is an incredible character,” Cavett tells the studio audience at the Elysee Theater on West Fifty-eighth Street in New York City.
He’s a motorcycle daredevil driver. All his life he’s been doing death- defying feats. Death has nearly defied him several times. His longest jump was fifty yards, a fifty-yard jump over the fountains of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. This jump did not go well. You may have read about it. Or seen some still photos of it. He has some film with him of what happened. He seems to spend his life, or what he has left of it, it sometimes seems to me, seeing what he can do to shorten it. Incredible things he does . . . Will you welcome the legendary Evel Knievel.
The Bob Rosengarden Orchestra plays “Daisy Bell” in the background, better known as “Bicycle Built for Two,” a family standard written in 1892. The audience applauds. The “incredible character,” the “motorcycle daredevil driver,” walks across the stage with a slight limp in his left leisure- suited leg.
First impression: he is pool-hall handsome, good chin, prominent nose, steady eyes, sandy hair combed back, semi- serious sideburns. Self-confidence is not a problem. Second impression: if he came to the front door to pick up your daughter, left the engine running in the fl ashy car outside, he would make you nervous. Third impression: your daughter would be thrilled.
He shakes hands with the shorter Cavett, then turns and shakes hands with a middle- aged black man who wears glasses under a modest Afro. The middle- aged black man is jazz trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, already finished, the first guest of the night. Dizzy Gillespie! Dizzy is smoking a cigarette.
Everyone sits down.
“How are you?” Cavett asks from behind his desk, then immediately laughs at the absurdity of his own first question.
How are you? How are you? Evel Knievel? How do you ask Evel Knievel, “How are you?” Significant stretches of his life have been spent in intensive care units. He has been in more hospitals than Dr. Christian Barnard or Marcus Welby, MD. He has more stitches in him than a Raggedy Ann doll, enough metal for a full Erector Set. How are you? His X-rays are his calling cards.
“Have you ever been hurt?” Cavett says, flummoxed.
“Yes, several times,” Evel Knievel replies. “Several times.”
The year is 1971. The month is August.
The interview has begun.
The Dick Cavett Show is the ABC entry in a three- network talk show race for the attention of the insomniacs of America at 11:30 p.m. Johnny Carson talks behind a desk at NBC. Merv Griffin does the same at CBS. The Cavett show is third in the late- night ratings, but seen as the intellectual alternative. Cavett attracts the most interesting guests, the newsmakers, the provocative people of the day. The talkers actually talk rather than wink, blink, sing a song, tell a joke as they promote their next endeavor.
Groucho Marx previously sat in the brown leather chair at the side of this desk. Jimi Hendrix. Alfred Hitchcock. Kirk Douglas. Sonny and/or Cher. Orson Welles. Satchel Paige. Bill Russell. Marlon Brando. Lester Maddox. John Kerry, the young Vietnam War resister. Jim Brown. Ingmar Bergman. Woody Allen. Joni Mitchell. Ann Landers. Truman Capote. Little Richard. Janis Joplin. Ralph Nader. Art Garfunkel. Dick Clark. Bette Davis. The list continues. John Lennon and Yoko Ono will be here within a month.
The thirty-two-year-old man in the zebra-striped leisure suit (who has been hurt several times) fits the chair as well as any of them. He is another emerging oversized figure of the moment. The movie about his life, starring George Hamilton, is in theaters across the country. He has played Madison Square Garden, the Astrodome, the Los Angeles Coliseum, a long list of arenas and stadiums and state fairs. He has talked, soared, flipped, bounced, skidded, and crashed his way into the public conversation.
Cavett: Gee, I’ve heard so much about you . . . do I detect a slight hesitation in your walk?
Knievel: When I got hurt in Las Vegas, I pushed my hips through my pelvis. That’s what’s known as a central protrusion fracture. And my left leg was pulled out. They put you in traction, pull you. That left hip did not come out. However, I’ve missed a jump like the Caesars Palace jump nine times in five years. And as a result of that, I’ve been operated on some twelve times…
Cavett: When they say you’ve broken every bone in your body, they actually don’t mean every bone…in your ear and everywhere…but have you broken over a dozen?
Knievel: Oh, yes. I imagine all the major bones except my neck…
Cavett: All the major bones…
Knievel: Both legs. Both arms. My back twice last year.
Cavett: Where’s the fun?
No one ever has done exactly what Evel Knievel does for a living. Trapeze artists and tightrope walkers and human cannonballs have made good money forever by challenging fate, by putting themselves in peril,
Man versus the Grim Reaper, but he has brought the battle to modern dimensions, motorized it, wrapped it in a 1971 weird modern mix of sport and gasoline, showbiz and derring-do.
He drives his motorcycle at a high speed off a ramp, over assorted objects, mostly lines of cars, but also buses or trucks or the fountains at Caesars Palace, and he attempts to land on a ramp on the other side. The foundation of his success is failure. The more times he lands in an ambulance instead of on the specified ramp, the more times he is carted away for more reconstructive surgery, the more captivating his show becomes. There are no Harry Houdini tricks, no false bottoms or optical illusions. He makes the jump. Or doesn’t. The times he doesn’t make headlines.
Cavett: I know you’re sick of being asked, “Why do you do it?” But why do you do it?
Knievel: That’s a standard question everybody asks anyone, is why they do what they do…
Cavett: There are a lot of nice office jobs available…
Knievel: There are three mysteries to life: where we came from, why we do what we do, and where we’re going to go. You don’t know the answer to any of those questions, and I don’t know the answer to any of them. So I never try to answer that. I do it because I’m Evel Knievel and there’s something within me that makes me do it, and I don’t try to figure it out, I just try to do it the best I can.
Cavett: Are you curious, would you ever like a psychiatrist to tell you why you…
Knievel: I’ve had a couple of them talk to me. They wound up talking to themselves.
Cavett: Do they come up with fancy theories, like you show your contempt for death by defying it and by tempting it and…
Knievel: They like to get me in a corner and look at me…I don’t care what they want to talk about: the Vietnam situation, the financial situation in the United States of America, the…anything…the educational system. I talk to them about the stunt work and the life and death of it and how I feel about God, being religious or not, and they don’t know what to think.
Cavett: They’re more likely to say that you have some hidden loathing of yourself . . .
Knievel: A death wish maybe. I don’t know. To me, life is a bore. Just doing nothing. I saw a guy working in that tunnel I came through here today. Why would a guy want to stand around in a tunnel for? Could you imagine wanting to work in a tunnel? He should get a motorcycle. Jump through the air. Breathe a little.
It is hard to say why Knievel has attracted America’s attention. His notoriety is a curious fit into a curious time. He is a young Elvis dropped from a previous generation of pegged- pants, duck’s- ass rebellion into the Age of Aquarius, more about trouble and excitement than peace and love. He even dresses like Elvis when he goes to work: white leather jumpsuits, red- white- and- blue stars and bars on the chest, fl ashy belt buckle with his initials on the front. He wears a cape. He carries a cane. Everything he does is counter to the counterculture. He is showing off, not dropping out, burning hydrocarbons instead of any kind of incense. There is not a mellow bone, broken or unbroken, in his body.
Maybe he fills a need. The Vietnam War is shit, has gone on forever. The politicians, led by Richard M. “Tricky Dick” Nixon in the White House, are shit. Authority of all kinds is shit. Society is shit. A dust of negativity has settled over everything familiar. Cynicism rules. Maybe there is a need for some muscle in the room, some noise, some unvarnished order. Move over, Maharishi. Get that sitar out of the way. Coming through. If the traditional heroes have disappeared, the soldiers and policemen and buttoned- down business leaders, then maybe a vacancy was opened on the pedestal. Maybe this self- invented hero with his self- invented name and his self- invented challenges has taken the spot. Someone was bound to get the job.
Cavett: Is there one moment where the big kick comes? Do you crave applause, for example?
Knievel: No…I’ve tried to figure myself out. I think when I was a youngster, I tried to impress people, and I got a big kick out of it. Not now. Playing with your life is really not much of a game…
Cavett: So you don’t need the mob approval.
Knievel: No, I have to be right with myself.
Cavett: So why don’t you just jump in the desert where nobody’s around? Could you do it and still get the same kick?
Knievel: Oh, I doubt that very much. To be a performer and to be the only one in the world and to take pride in doing what I do, which I do, drives me, keeps me going. I’m certain of that.
He is a one- man ethical dilemma. That is what he is. The romance in his message is to take a chance, to get off your butt, to put down your nine- to- five chains and go for it, whatever it might be. These are solid motivational thoughts perhaps, but the possible consequences in his execution of them are large. He has chosen a career in professional Russian roulette, twirling the chamber and pulling the trigger for public consumption. The choice just about leaves you breathless.
How much reward is worth how much risk? How much do you hate that job at the factory, the office, slicing cold cuts behind the delicatessen counter? Could you ever hate it as much as this man? The price he has paid so far— the injuries, the time in the hospital— might actually work on a balance sheet compiled by a sympathetic accountant. The possible price he could pay, though, would be out of the question.
Then again, that is what he wants you to think. He is selling fear and worry. Fear and worry are good. Marketable.
Knievel: I’d like to get serious for a second, if it’s all right. When you talk about the jumping, I know I’ve been called a lot of things by a lot of people. A crazy man. A con man. But when you head down that long white line, you’d better have made your peace with God or know what you’re doing, because a con man ain’t going to get there.
Cavett: I was going to ask you— do you think about God?
Knievel: Well, of course I do. I flirt with my life so much, every month, two or three times a month, of course I’m a lot more aware of life and what it involves, I think, than a lot of people are who get in a car and go down and have an accident happen, and it’s something you’re not planning on or suspecting.
The interview goes well. Cavett is a perfect fit with Knievel: the classroom smarty- pants, the mama’s boy A student who will go to Yale, talking with the wiseguy from the back of the room, the future dropout who is still the resident idol and heartthrob in the school. Cavett has the energy of an anthropologist studying an odd primeval culture. Knievel has the patience to explain.
He is not flamboyant in the least with his tone or actions. He lets the words bring the adventure. The simple recitation of the injuries and the dire possibilities, the matter- of- fact mention of the word “death,” do the job. He does not seem at all like a crazy man. Only the things he does
The footage he shows of the crash at Caesars Palace on New Year’s Eve 1967, short and blunt and brutal, less than a minute in length, is as mesmerizing as any filmed carnage that has been shipped back from Vietnam. The images are new, different, startling, a real man really being hurt. The viewer has not seen much, if any, of this.
As Knievel’s body flies off the handlebars at impact, as it bounces and rolls, bounces again and rolls, bounces and rolls, he delivers a voice- over play- by- play. He has done this many times now on television and in press conferences, in restaurants and function rooms. This…this film…is what made him famous. He describes his thoughts, his feelings, his pain, as his body continues to travel across the pavement in slow motion.
“That’s pavement?” Cavett asks.
“If you look close, you can see the chrome being scraped off the motorcycle,” Knievel says.
He moves into the plans for his next extravaganza, jumping across the Snake River Canyon in Idaho. No date has been set, but he is going to do it. He wanted to jump the Grand Canyon, but says he was denied access by the federal government, so now it is Snake River. One mile wide. He is going to use a “jet-powered, streamlined motorcycle.” He is going to land with a “ballistically employed parachute.” He rattles off figures about thrust (two thousand pounds) and speed (over three hundred miles per hour). The landing will be upside down. On the rocks. On the other side. This will be his masterpiece. This will be the scariest thing he ever has done.
“That sounds exciting,” Dick Cavett says. “Can I go with you?”
“If you lose a little weight,” Evel Knievel says.
The jokes are nervous jokes.
A canyon. Holy sweet Jesus. An imaginary toe scuffs an imaginary rock over the side. The rock falls and falls, goes out of sight. Still hasn’t landed. Holy Mary, Mother of God. Who is this guy? What is he thinking? A canyon? On a motorcycle? The presentation makes this stunt sound like a climb up the Matterhorn in bad weather, another NASA trip to the moon, this time by slingshot. The enterprise seems totally foolhardy. The sense of doom is bigger than it ever has been.
Which is the way Evel Knievel likes it. Tickets will be available.
“Well…,” Dick Cavett says. Pause.
“All right… ,” Dick Cavett says. Pause.
“Good luck,” Dick Cavett says.
He goes to commercial.
The final guest of the night is Averill Harriman, the governor of New York. The governor does not wear a zebra-striped leisure suit.
Book excerpt from Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend, by Leigh Montville. Copyright (c) 2011 by Leigh Montville. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.