Yesterday, we lost a giant of American history. It's hard to overstate how massive Evel Knievel was in the media sphere of the late 1960s and early 1970s without some premium-grade hyperbole. Imagine the most identifiable figure of the past few years — Oprah, say, or that geek Star Wars kid from YouTube — and raise them by a Rachel Ray or a Sting. That'll get you in the ballpark with a guy who literally broke every bone in his body — on television — in the name of daredevil motorcycling. Evel Knievel owned the 70s. And he pwned himself in the process.
It was the era of the Big TV Network, when a single broadcast could reel in more eyeballs than today's top 10 cable channels and top 10,000 websites combined. Fronting that massive lens during the late-Vietnam era, Robert Craig "Evel" Knievel, Jr. did one thing, and one thing only. He jumped over stuff. First, it was rattlesnakes and mountain lions, then cars, then buses — launch ramp to landing ramp, stars-and-stripes-clad jumpsuit and satin cape flapping in the wind. Audiences ate it up. Then, they came back for seconds and thirds.
Knievel had a surefire formula for keeping the small-screen bucks rolling in: Up the ante, no matter the cost. An audience comprising equal parts Joe sixpack and hippie Johnny tuned in to ABC to watch Knievel's increasingly elaborate leaps. Some hoped he'd come out on the high side of physics, others morbidly expected the man to shatter like human crockery. Maybe this'll be the time. Usually both sides got their wish. Oftentimes he'd land clear, then crumple to the ground, suffering astounding bodily harm. A pulverized femur here, a stuffed vertebrae there. Knievel worked it, limping out of the hospital in front of the rolling cameras, held together with pins and plates and surgical-steel hinges and ready to go again. He was as close to an action figure as human flesh could get.
In 1967 came the big payoff. In an independently financed production, Knievel launched his bike over the fountains at Las Vegas's Caesar's Palace, crashing so severely that he wound up in a coma for 29 days. ABC's Wide World of Sports bought the show and ran it, kickstarting Knievel into megastardom. In 1972, he undertook a massive effort to jump Idaho's Snake River Canyon inside a jet-powered craft. It was ludicrous from the get-go, a ridiculous climax to a career hard-wired to the stratosphere. He made it as a matter of distance, but a prematurely deployed chute drifted his skycycle back over the water, and he nearly drowned in the process.
After that, it was more exhibitions, more buses, more crashes. In 1981, he made his last jump, an ill-fated soar over a tank of sharks. A fitting end to his career, considering the connotation.
How Knievel went from huckster and petty thief to superstar is a story for the ages. But his death was long and slow and painful, and directly related to the constant battering his body took during that fateful decade-and-a-half. The era of the daredevil ended long before he did.
Photo Credit: KC Blogs