The First Reality TV Star

February 8, 2017

 

I've always had a soft spot for Evel Knievel, as guys of my generation do ( I grew up in the 60's & the 70's). Little did I know that he was sort of a poster child for what this blog is supposed to be about.

 

I wrote the headline: "An LGBTQ & Cis lifestyle blog for living, not existing" before researching this story. If you want to have fun go on youtube and listen to some Evel Knievel interviews. The guy was as hard-headed and braggadocious as anyone you will ever hear. He would make a claim and then follow through on it even if it killed him. Then in one interview, I heard that very phrase come out of his mouth when describing how he found his way to being a daredevil in the center of huge arenas with millions watching: "I was interested in living. Not just existing" he explained - bingo - I had my man.

 

Robert Craig Knievel's parents, the beautiful Ann Kehoe & dashing Robert Knievel. Copper miners working in the 10,000 miles of underground tunnels in Butte's Anaconda copper mine known as 'the world's richest hill'

 

Who was Evel Knievel? The people in today's thriving extreme sports culture pretty much agree that he invented the genre, and by doing the outrageously dangerous stunts that he did live on TV, I think you can make the argument that he kind of invented reality television. 

 

None of it happened by accident, he was a very canny showman and hustler, and he had tremendous guts. Here is his story: 

 

Robert Craig Knievel was born in 1938 in Butte Montana the copper mining capital of the U.S. The heyday of Butte's mining days was from the late 19th century to the mid-1920's supplying copper wire for the electrification of America. So in the 40's and 50's when Knievel was growing up although winding down, the mining was still in full swing. Copper mining was hard dangerous work and men frequently got killed on the job. Consequently, the town possessed a spirit of rough & tumble individualism which the young Knievel inherited. In uptown Butte, the blocks surrounding Mercury street, known as the 'Copper Block,' was home to hundreds of saloons and numerous brothels.

 

Knievel's parents who are notably extremely young and attractive appear to have had him, split up, and left town, leaving the father's parents to raise the boy.  For an adventurous boy being raised by his grandparents, Butte sounds like a paradise on earth, free to roam the town on a bicycle with a front row seat to the exploits of the adults. In one interview Knievel recounts having easy access to beer and running errands for saloon-keepers and prostitutes.

 

Contemporary view of Butte Montana with visible headframes from mines. 100 billion dollars of copper ore was extracted from the earth under Butte to provide copper wire for America's electrification in the late 19th & early 20th century

 

 

With all of the thirsty miners, commercial breweries opened in Butte in the 1870's run by German immigrants. It was common for children to enjoy their products. With hundreds of saloons and and multiple brothels, Butte was known as a 'wide open' town where any vice was available. Some of the famous saloons in 'Uptown Butte'

 

Young Robbie Knievel was athletic playing hockey and skiing wich included ski-jumping which no doubt portended his eventual stunts. Easily bored with an adventurous streak he sounds like what was referred to at the time as a juvenile delinquent. A non-conformist outsider he fell in with a group of would-be criminals burglarizing local businesses and pursuing other petty crimes. Knievel showed budding talents as a hustler, in one instance capitalizing on a local robbery of a jewelry store by purchasing dime store fake rings and attempting to take credit for the crime by offering them for sale around town. He dropped out of high school in his sophomore year and started bouncing from job to job. One hair-raising run as a shuttle bus driver  transporting workers to the mine was all he got when he nearly ran it off the road. A gig as an earth mover skinner ended when he turned the machine over. What he lacked in steadiness he made up for in physical courage or recklessness depending on how you looked at it.

 

Knievel finally landed on his feet in Spokane Washinton where found success selling insurance. He would make dare's and bets with prospects and then collect in insurance policies. 

 

Young newlyweds Robert & Linda. Knievel pursued the popular 'good girl' relentlessly against her father's wishes. Their first date consisted of him tying her up and kidnapping her.

Knievel spelled evil Evel to avoid sinful connotations. An early jump in yellow leathers on an English bike, either a Norton (his first sponsor), or Triumph

 

Motorcycles had been an interest all along and Knievel took his Insurance sales prowess and leveraged it into motorcycle sales for Norton. Norton Motorcycles would be his first sponsor when he decided to form a stunt show based on Joey Chitwood's thrill show. One condition of the sponsorship was that he call himself 'Evil Knievel' a nickname he had picked up from the Butte police when he was locked up alongside another guy they referred to as 'awful Knoephel'.

 

He changed the spelling to Evel because he didn't want the image as a 'sinner'. All throughout his career which included heavy drinking and womanizing, Knievel adhered to a strict honor code which precluded criminals, drugs, and a lack of patriotism. He once famously slid his bike into a Hell's Angel at a jump in San Francisco's Cow Palace, after the biker gave him the finger during his warm up. the result was a melee in which scores of Evel's fans set upon the other Hell's Angel's present. So at the height of the counterculture Evel Knievel stood apart; a rebel but not a hippie, a patriot but not a square. He had this American independence and self-reliance that appealed across the spectrum to a country in need of heroes.

 

The making of Knievel's career was convincing wealthy motorsports promoter J.C Agajanain who booked the motorsport segments on ABC's popular Sunday afternoon Wide World of Sports to feature one of his jumps. On Nov. 10th 1973 Knievel jumped 50 cars at the LA Coliseum and the ratings blew up. Aggie recognized what he had in the young daredevil and become his promoter.

 

Wealthy Armenian motorsports promoter J.C. Agajanian, shown here with racers Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser

 

Evel's big break came when he convinced Agajanian to feature him on ABC's Wide World of Sports. ABC's 'Dandy' Don Meredith and Howard Cosell interviewing Evel prior to a jump on the popular Sunday afternoon show.

 

Having gotten on TV as a motorcycle daredevil, Evel had his sights on something really grand that would capture the popular Imagination. As a showman, his idols were Elvis and Liberace who dominated the Las Vegas entertainment landscape at that time. He set his sights on the fountains of Ceasar's palace, Las Vegas's grandest new hotel-casino. Like the Bellagio fountains in 2000's Ocean's 11 Vegas, the Ceasars palace fountains were a big tourist attraction of the time.

 

If Agajanian was Evel's first step on the road to national fame then Jay Sarno, the larger than life casino owner, and builder of Ceasars would be his second.  Evel recounts seeing Sarno make a big entrance at a title prize fight with his entourage an army of flunkies waiting on him in his front row box. Evel decided he had found his man and proceeded to craft a campaign to get Sarno to approve the jump. Like Donald Trump calling New York columnests under an assumed identity to tip off the tabloids about his evening plans, and which model he would be accompanied by, each week Evel would pose as another established sports journalist and called Sarno's office asking if the dare-devil was really going to jump the fountains. Each time he altered the stuntman's name a little to make it more convincing. When Knievel finally contacted Sarno he was eager to meet with him and approved the jump. 

 

Rising star: Evel and his team prepping for a jump. All calculations were 'seat of the pants' which led to frequent spectacular crashes. Agajanian in the background.

 

Jay Sarno (on the right next to the statue) developer & owner of Ceasars Palace, and Hollywood actor and film maker John Derek and his wife actress Linda Evans whom Evel hired to film the fountains jump. Linda's slow motion footage of his crash landing which was shown over and over again on TV, would make the daredevil a household name.

 

Another wrinkle in the Ceasars fountain jump legend is that Knievel made a deal with filmmaker and actor John Derek to film the jump in high-quality slow motion 35mm film so that Evel could sell it to TV. Evel would own the film Two cameras were used and Derek enlisted his beautiful actress wife Linda Evans who was a  star on TV's The Big Valley, to man the landing shot. So even though Evel came up short on the jump, the spectacular footage that she shot of Evel's punishing tumbling crash was shown on network television programs such as The Tonight Show and really cemented Evel's legend more than a successful landing would have. 

 

120 foot Ceasars fountain jump where Evel landed a foot short of the ramp causing a spectacular tumbling crash. Evel spun the failed jump into a life or death saga claiming to have been in a coma for 29 days.

 

A recuperating Knievel showing his wife Linda the scrapes on his Bell full-face helmet that saved his life. 

 

Knievel was severely injured from the crash but turned this to his advantage as well. As the spectacular footage was being aired on TV it was against the backdrop of Knievel lying in the hospital in a coma, his life hanging in the balance. He would always claim that he was in a coma for 29 days as a result of the crash, and whether he was or wasn't it was a great way to promote the film.

 

The Ceasars fountain jump & crash made Evel a household name and he appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson where Carson showed the Ceasar's crash film and then interviewed the dare-devil about what such a crash was like. Having created a superhero character, Knievel proceeded to live the part. Like Liberace, he carried a gold-handled walking stick. On the Tonight Show, he proceeded to open it up and pour Ed McMahon a drink (this was a running gag on the show that Ed was a drunk). In his personal life with money and fame came hard partying. True to his Butte Montana ethos he worked hard and played even harder. Heavy drinking, gambling, and womanizing were the norm. The trouble with his fearless persona was that he had to keep upping the ante for his fans.


 

Knievel's Harley XR-750. Unlike today's extreme sports stunt bikes, it was a basic flat track racing bike with 3" travel on the suspension. Not much to absorb the impact of his jumps. His body ended up bearing the brunt of it.

Evel in his prime. He created a larger than life character and then proceeded to live the part. 

 

 

For inspiration, Knievel looked to the top showmen in Las Vegas, Liberace and Elvis. Clockwise from upper left: 'Lee' Liberace making an entrance in a floor length mink, Liberace's custom Rolls with stars & stripes, Elvis in one of his white jumpsuits with a cape (Knievel adopted a cape), a slim younger Presley looking super hot.

 

 The look

One of Evel's slo-mo crash landings &  a scraped up helmet

 

Evel Knievel warming up for a jump. Once he made a name for himself, all of his jumps were heavily promoted and televised live, drawing huge ratings. Note the parachute on the back of the bike to help slow him down in short-landing venues.


 

 Evel in a Peter Max 70's-fabulous 'body' shirt

 

 With Lauren Hutton (playing Linda) during the filming of 1977's Viva Knievel

 

The Snake River Canyon jump started as a 1973 bar boast that he would jump the Grand Canyon. After the National Parks nixed that idea, Knievel purchased property on the rim of Idaho's Snake River Canyon so authorities couldn't stop him. On the left Knievel being strapped into his 400 mph steam powered sky-cycle.

 

The ultimate stunt and the one that would transform him into a cultural icon started out as a bar bet. A no doubt drunk Knievel claimed that he would jump the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle. The audacity of the claim (clearly it would be suicidal) is a great reflection of the man. Having made the claim, he would not back down. The national parks service stewards of the canyon not wanting the spectacle of a dead star nixed the jump - (all this was played out in the press) and so undeterred Knievel leased property on the rim of Idaho's Snake River Canyon where no-one could stop him. He hired a former NASA rocket engineer, Robert Truax to create a steam powered 'sky-cycle' that would be launched from a tower across the 1,500 ft. canyon, The landing would be accomplished with a parachute which would need to be released at precisely the right time, to land safely on the far rim. 

 

The first prototype resembled a motorcycle rather than a rocket but consecutive attempts resulted in a nose dive into the canyon. The second version christened the skycycle X-2 looked like a rocket plane. Three were built and neither of the first two made it successfully across the canyon. Unable to fund further prototypes Evel decided to make his attempt with remaining X-2 on Sept. 8, 1974. A circus-like atmosphere with 20,000+ people developed at the site south of Twinn Falls. Part rock concert, part biker party a camper city awash in beer, dope, cocaine, and rumors of beatings and rapes swirling around, local law enforcement was totally overwhelmed. Among other things, extreme consumption of beer led organizers to worry about the ability of flimsy hurricane fencing to prevent inebriated fans from plunging into the canyon below. Nixon biographer David Frost was on the scene the day of the jump to record the events for prosperity. Evel and his family arrived by helicopter looking 1970's fabulous, everyone believing that he would die in the attempt including Evel. Evel was famous for saying things like:"I've never been afraid of dying. Dying is part of living" and "The most important thing is, did you put your heart into it - did you keep your word?" In front of  a frenzied a crowd of 20,000 plus-and a Pay per view audience in the millions, Evel had himself strapped into the sky-cycle and pushed the button. As an ark of steam traced his path across the canyon his parachute seemed to deploy too soon and he slowly drifted down into the canyon rather than onto the far side.He came to rest on the sony river bank with the parachute spilling into the river. It took a full thirty minutes for the rescue party to reach him. During that time most assumed, he had drowned in the river wich he likely would have, if not for the lucky landing spot.

View of the Snake River Canyon jump site with launch ramp which gives you a sense of how vast it is

 

Linda Knievel outside of their trailer meeting with the media. Evel having contentious press conference prior to the jump

 

Linda, Evel, & family arriving by helicopter for the Snake River jump. Prior to researching this article, I never realized how terrific-looking they were.

 

He emerged from the skycycle with a bump on his head, and next level fame. The Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle became a monster hit with then chairman of Sears crediting it with single-handedly reviving the toy business. In the three years following the jump, he would earn 20 - 30 million dollars in toy royalties alone. He became a frequent guest star in movies and on television. His lifestyle adjusted accordingly. He became a 24 hour a day playboy flying into Las Vegas in his Lear jet and keeping suites at casino hotels where he would entertain women, and put a $10,000 bet in the casino  on the roll of the dice, or a spin of the roulette wheel. He drank, he gambled, and he chased women. Later after he lost everything, he would claim that he let $60 million dollars slip through his fingers during these years.

 

 

The media frenzy surrounding the 1974 canyon jump put Evel's fame into overdrive and made him a very wealthy man. His royalties from toy licensing alone earned him 20 - 30 million dollars. Clockwise from above: Ideal Evel Knievel Stunt  Cycle was the largest selling toy of 1975, Evel Knievel bicycle, detail from pinball machine, one of several biopics featuring George Hamilton.

 

Evel in front of his Learjet

 

The book that prompted Evel's assault on Shelly Saltman with a baseball bat. Shelly Saltman in the hospital with a broken arm following the attack.

 

The beginning of his downfall occurred in 1977 when he assaulted a Hollywood producer by the name of Shelly Saltman with an aluminum baseball bat on the 20th Century Fox lot while two accomplices held the man down. The attack was prompted by a tell-all book Saltman had written about Evel's Snake River Jump in which he detailed Evel's womanizing and drug use. (Saltman had been brought in by Bob Arum to promote the event on Pay Per View) It appears to have been the drug allegations that really set him off. See a key part of Evel's brand had always been his anti-drug, anti law-breaker message. In the hearing, Knievel pleaded guilty and basically bragged about the assault which by his Butte Montana code he considered justified. The California judge didn't see it that way and sentenced him to 3 years probation and 6 months in jail. The conviction spelled the end of his lucrative Toy Licensing business and he was promptly dropped by all of his sponsers. He was also slapped with a 13 million dollar personal injury lawsuit by Saltman who quipped that he "hurt Knievel more than any of his crashes." The combination of the suit and of losing his toy licenses resulted in his eventual insolvency. In 1980 the IRS came after him for $3 million in back taxes and that did it. Even Evel's long-suffering wife of 38 years, Linda had had enough and they divorced in 1997.

 

Knievel turning himself into police for the 1977 Saltman assault

 

 

Evel squandered his fortune with profligate spending and suffered serious financial setbacks following his assault conviction and jail term. Shown here pitching a scooter. Evel and second wife Krystal.

 

In the late 90's he was diagnosed with Hep C and liver disease and he was put on a list for a new liver. The years of hard living and numerous operations had taken their toll. He got a liver transplant in 1999 and rallied.  He met  a new young wife Krystal who was swept off her feet the old gladiator. He took up oil painting, and they traveled the country In an RV selling his paintings and memorabilia and playing lot's of golf and hanging out in bars drinking beer Montana style - with tomato juice and a shot of Wild Turkey. 

 

Robbie Knievel, the boy who grew up to be the boyhood hero of millions of American guys in the 1970's finally got the recognition he spent his life franticaly chasing. Embraced by the Gen X men that he inspired as kids they saught him out to lionize and pay their tributes. Matthew McConaughey was at his wedding to Kristen and made a biopic of his life called 'I am Evel Knievel'. He was followed by 'Jackass' dare-devil Johnnie Knoxville who produced and acted in a labor of love called 'Being Evel'.So basically the coolest guys of the oughts, got to pay tribute to their Inspiration and become part of his life. 

 

He passed away in 2007 at the age of 69 from complications resulting from Pulminary Fibrosis (he had been on oxygen for some time). Matthew McConaughey was among those who ulogized him at his funeral. The Gen X'rs who have made a lifestyle out of boundry pushing in extreme Go Pro-recorded sports are his children. Would the skaters and snowboarders have created their shredding sports and their tricks if they haden't grown up playing with his toys? No way to know, but he was a big influence. To quote Johnnie Knoxville: "Evel was such a big influence on my childhood, nothing stuck with me like that.  "No one went for it like that before Evel Knievel".

 

Johnny Knoxville promoting the movie he produced, Being Evel about Knievel's story. Matthew McConaughey eulogizing Evel at his funeral in 2007.

 

 

 

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