Evel Knievel: 'Evil,' Yes, But Still Fascinating

May 28, 2011

Sept. 8, 1974 was a momentous day in American history. Sure, it was the day that Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, but maybe more importantly, it was also the day Evel Knievel tried — and failed — to jump across the Snake River Canyon on a jet-powered motorcycle.

Evel Knievel is mostly a punchline these days, but 35 years ago, he was one of the biggest names on television. "It was a different time back then," sportswriter Leigh Montville tells Weekend All Things Considered guest host Rachel Martin.

Montville is the author of a new biography of the famous daredevil, called Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel, American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend.

Montville recalls the days when there were just three networks catering to TV viewers, "and Evel kind of popped up in the middle of it all, with this replay of himself crashing and bouncing and looking like a rag doll."

That famous footage was from yet another botched stunt-- Knievel had tried to jump the fountains at the Caesar's Palace casino in Las Vegas, and crashed spectacularly, ending up in the hospital for weeks. But that failure launched his career. "He became a sort of sequential reality show," Montville says. "You paid attention to his life."

Knievel set himself up as a Captain America-style hero in his red, white and blue racing leathers. "It was the '60s and the '70s, and there was an absence of heroes in America, and he was glad to volunteer to be the hero," Montville says.

The famous daredevil had a dark side, though. He'd been a petty crook back in his hometown of Butte, Mont., robbing stores and gas stations. In fact, it was a Butte cop who supposedly nicknamed him "Evil" Knievel. He changed that to "Evel" when he started performing in public, because it looked less, well, evil.

Montville says Knievel was hard on his business partners and abusive to his wife. He quotes one acquaintance of Knievel's who quipped, "If Evel Knievel likes you, he'll do anything for you. But if he doesn't like you, he'll do anything to you."

Even so, Knievel has a lasting place in American culture. Montville says his antics appeal to the inner daredevil we all have.

"You run with that stick, you'll poke your eye out. Well, he'd run with that stick all day long. And there's something freeing in seeing someone kind of unafraid of stuff."

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