Robert Craig Knievel was the hero of my childhood. After all, who else was brave, insane or dumb enough to attempt more than 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps in his life, a life that should have ended way shorter than the 69 hellacious years that he lived on this planet with?
How does one become a daredevil? For Evel — who was given that name by a jail guard — it all started with rodeos, ski jumping and pole vaulting. Upon returning from the army, he started a semi-pro hockey team, the Butte Bombers. In one of their games, where they played against Czechoslovakian Olympic ice hockey team, Even was ejected from the game minutes into the third period and left the stadium. When the Czechoslovakian officials went to collect the money for playing, they learned that it had been stolen.
After the birth of his son, Evel started the Sur-Kill Guide Service, which was really just a front for poaching in Yellowstone National Park. He was arrested for this and then hitchhiked with a 54-inch rack of antlers the whole way to Washington to plead his case.
It was around this time that Evel decided to stop committing crimes — don’t worry, he kept up with them — and get into motorcycle riding. A broken collarbone and reading Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude led to Evel working for the Combined Insurance Company of America, a job he held for a few months until they wouldn’t promote him to vice-president after a few months. Whew Evel! And then a failed Honda dealership led him to work for Don Pomeroy at his motorcycle shop, where the owner’s son Jim taught him how to do a wheelie.
This led Evel to do his first stunt show that he promoted entirely on his own, even serving as his own MC. He did a few wheelies and then jumped a box filled with rattlesnakes and mountain lions. This is where you either say, “This is stupid” or become fascinated. Me? How awesome is it to have a box filled with dangerous wildlife and decide to jump a motorcycle over it? Yep, this is why I was obsessed with Evel as a child.
This led to an obsession with jumping more things — like cars — and the unfortunate side effect of getting hurt nearly every time. He crashed around twenty times — huge, incredibly violent crashes — and his Guinness Book of World Records entry states he suffered 433 bone fractures by the end of 1975.
Evel crashed at Caesar’s Palace. He crashed jumping Pepsi trucks. He crashed outside the Cow Palace. And then he started dreaming big — he wanted to jump teh Grand Canyon. Why? Take it from the man himself: “I don’t care if they say, “Look, kid, you’re going to drive that thing off the edge of the Canyon and die,” I’m going to do it. I want to be the first. If they’d let me go to the moon, I’d crawl all the way to Cape Kennedy just to do it. I’d like to go to the moon, but I don’t want to be the second man to go there.”
The government would never allow Evel to do this. It’s even a big part of this movie — just look at the posters. Finally, he’d jump Snake River Canyon, an event whose close circuit telecast bombed, almost bankrupting a young Vince McMahon Jr. before he even bought his father’s WWF. He used the Skycycle and nearly drowned when again he failed to make the jump.
A year later, Evel would crash again jumping thirteen buses in front of Wembley Stadium. After the crash, despite breaking his pelvis, Knievel made it to his feet and talked to the crowd, announcing his retirement: “Ladies and gentlemen of this wonderful country, I’ve got to tell you that you are the last people in the world who will ever see me jump. Because I will never, ever, ever jump again. I’m through.” Frank Gifford begged him to go out on a stretcher, but Evel said “I came in walking, I went out walking!”
Of course, Evel was a carnie and kept on pulling off stunts until 1977, when a Jaws inspired leap broke both his arms and nearly blinded a cameraman.
The life of Evel is a complicated story to tell. On one hand, he was an entertainer, out there in a jumpsuit covered with stars and a cape. On the other, he was a man who believed in keeping his word and battling the evils of drugs (a Hell’s Angel threw a tire iron on stage during one of his jumps as he had often battled against the group for being drug dealers and he ended up putting three of them in the hospital). And on another hand, he lost his Ideal Toy and Harley Davidson endorsements when he went wild on Shelly Saltsman, a sports promoter, Hollywood producer and author of the book Evel Knievel on Tour, which alleged that Evel used drugs and abused his family. To get back at him, despite having two broken arms, Evel cornered him on the 20th Century Fox backlot and beat him unmerciful with a baseball bat.
When the news of Knievel’s attack came up on the news, Saltman’s elderly mother had a heart attack and died three months later. Evel got a six month work furlough and was ordered to pay $12.75 million in damages, money he never paid. After the stunt icon’s 2007 death, Saltman decided to sue his estate for $100 million US dollars with interest, but he never got a dime before he died in 2019.
As for Evel, even his death was an event. His packed funeral was presided over by Pastor Dr. Robert H. Schuller — who baptized Evel in 2007 at his Crystal Cathedral, which led to an influx of new parisioners — with Matthew McConaughey giving the eulogy. But first — there were fireworks. Before he died, Evel said that he “beat the hell out of death.”
I told you all that to tell you about this movie.
The film begins with Evel — played by George Hamilton — giving a speech directly to us, the viewer: “Ladies and gentlemen, you have no idea how good it makes me feel to be here today. It is truly an honor to risk my life for you. An honor. Before I jump this motorcycle over these 19 cars — and I want you to know there’s not a Volkswagen or a Datsun in the row — before I sail cleanly over that last truck, I want to tell you that last night a kid came up to me and he said, “Mr Knievel, are you crazy? That jump you’re going to make is impossible, but I already have my tickets because I want to see you splatter.” That’s right, that’s what he said. And I told that boy last night that nothing is impossible. Now they told Columbus to sail across the ocean was impossible. They told the settlers to live in a wild land was impossible. They told the Wright Brothers to fly was impossible. And they probably told Neil Armstrong a walk on the moon was impossible. They tell Evel Knievel to jump a motorcycle across the Grand Canyon is impossible, and they say that every day. A Roman General in the time of Caesar had the motto: “If it is possible, it is done. If it is impossible, it will be done.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I live by.”
Then we get a movie version of Evel’s life. It was originally written by Alan Caillou, who played King Sancho in The Sword and the Sorcerer. Hamilton wanted John Milius to rewrite it. Upon reading the original script, he launched it into Hamilton’s pool and beat it with an oar. That meant that he was the new writer.
Milius would go on to say that he preferred the final product to many of the other films shot from his scripts. “They didn’t restrain it or tone it down, they shot the script. The guy is just as obnoxious and full of hot air as he was in the script. Just as full of life and vitality too. He’s Evel Knievel! He wouldn’t take a dime off of anybody.”
Hamilton would later tell Pop Entertainment, when asked about the film, “The thing about it is at that time Evel was not famous. When we made that movie he took a jump over the fountains and splattered. He had not become a Mattel toy at that time. I put a writer on it named John Milius – who [later] wrote Apocalypse Now. He was the best of the writers of that era. I got him to write the script for me. Then Milius made me read the script to Evel. I realized he was kind of a sociopath and was totally messed. Then all of sudden Evel started to adopt lines out of the movie for himself. So his persona in the movie became more of his persona in real life. He would have been every kid’s hero on one hand, but then he went and took that baseball bat and broke that guy’s legs and that finished his career in the toy business. Evel was very, very difficult and he was jealous of anybody that was gonna play him. He wanted to portray himself and he did go and make his own movie later on. He had a great perception of this warrior that he thought he was and that was good. Then he had this other side of himself where he’d turn on you in a minute. Success is something that you have earn. You have to have a humility for it, because it can leave you in a second. It may remember you but it can sure leave you. I think if you don’t get that and you don’t have gratitude for what you are and where you are it doesn’t come back and it goes away forever.”
Evel Knievel ends with our hero successfully making a jump at the Ontario Motor Speedway and driving to a dirt road that leads to the Grand Canyon — which is about 456 miles if you take I-40. Again, he looks right at the camera and says, “Important people in this country, celebrities like myself — Elvis, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne — we have a responsibility. There are millions of people that look at our lives and it gives theirs some meaning. People come out from their jobs, most of which are meaningless to them, and they watch me jump 20 cars, maybe get splattered. It means something to them. They jump right alongside of me — they take the bars in their hands, and for one split second, they’re all daredevils. I am the last gladiator in the new Rome. I go into the arena and I compete against destruction and I win. And next week, I go out there and I do it again. And this time — civilization being what it is and all — we have very little choice about our life. The only thing really left to us is a choice about our death. And mine will be — glorious.”
George Hamilton seems as far from the real Evel as you can get. But he was a carnie too, as Milius related that Hamilton was “A great con-man, that’s what he really is. He always said, “I’ll be remembered as a third-rate actor when in fact, I’m a first-rate con man.””
Evel made one more movie. That’s another story and trust me, I’ll be getting to it soon.
You can watch this for free on the Internet Archive or use the streaming link I shared above.