Reporter Kevin Smith wrote this article in September 1998 when Evel Knievel was 59. Although it was a scoop at the time, the world had all but forgotten Evel Knievel, a man who once commanded headlines and airtime in many countries of the world.
By Kevin Smith
Published in the-vu in August 2000
Evel Knievel has stared at death over the handlebars of his bike hundreds of times. As the daredevil stuntman in white leather, he soared through the air and come crashing down as the world watched and winced. But this time there is nothing he can do to steer away from inevitable death. Not extra throttle, no last-minute swerve. Evel Knievel, the last of the gladiators, is dying.
Not the death everyone expected. Not a bone shattering crash at some glamorous location jumping over a shark tank, or double-decker buses or a long line of limousines. Evel’s life is being slowly taken away by liver disease, and unless he can get a transplant, he will not survive. “It is a bitch,” Evel said. “I am not scared of it, nothing much scares me. But I just don’t want to die.”
Evel became a hero to the world not just because of his jumping skill, or the spectacular falls but for his gutsy determination, the determination that had him fall, break his body into several pieces, then dust himself off and do it all over again. Fans marveled at how he survived those falls, and now it appears he didn’t.
Blood tainted with hepatitis C was used during one of the 14 surgeries that pieced him back together. Evel is not sure which one. But it doesn’t matter now. “Truth is, if I don’t get a new liver, I am going to die. Even with a new one, there is no guarantee.. My body may reject it. And if it does work, it is just buying me some more time. Maybe seven years.
Hepatitis C is worse than AIDS. There is no cure. If I do get a liver the disease will start attacking the new one as soon as it is put in. It is a damn rattlesnake this thing.”
Now Evel carries a pager which will alert him when a liver is found. But he doesn’t kid himself about his chances. He is just one of 10,000 anxiously waiting, and 25 percent of those die before a donor is found. “It is not first come first served. The livers are given out to the sickest. At one point I was what they call a B2, which is real sick. When my health improved a bit my doctor told me to go and visit my grandkids while I still had the chance.”
He is still on that tear jerking tour of America, spending quality time with his four children and seven grandchildren. “I don’t know how long I got left,” Evel said. “I thought I was a gonner a couple of times already.” Twice doctors have pulled him back from the brink. A staphylococcal infection, related to the degenerating liver, has caused massive hemorrhages in his neck.
“I thought I was going to bleed to death. The veins in my throat literally exploded. That was five years ago when they discovered the real problem was my liver. That was when they told me to quit drinking. “But you know, I am a stubborn man. I have been a big shot all my life. I thought I knew it all. So I continued to drink. I have punished my liver I can tell you, and that just helps hepatitis C even more.”
That punishment included years of pain killers washed down with the Evel cocktail, the Montana Mary. A lethal mix of beer, tomato juice and Wild Turkey whisky. In his heyday Evel did little to dispel rumors that the secret ingredient was a couple of drops of sump oil.
“I haven’t had a drink in years. I drink non-alcoholic beer now. I can’t risk a beer and I don’t want one. “This disease is a bitch. Some days, I just can’t get out of bed. It saps your energy. Some days are good, some are bad.”
There were the days when it was Evel who was bad. A former safecracker, bank robber and miner, Evel never shied from a challenge. The years of hard living and tough knocks have taken their toll on the 59-year-old. His cocky swagger has been replaced by a slow limp. His knuckles are misshapen and swollen. His movements are jerky and awkward.
“There are a lot of myths about my injuries. They say I have broken every bone in my body. Not true.. But I have broken 35 bones. I had surgery fourteen times to pin and plate. I shattered my pelvis. I forget all of the things that have broke.”
And his luck hasn’t got any better. Last year he took a tumble on the golf course and broke his hip. And just last month he slipped getting out of a Jacuzzi and cracked a rib. The cracks, the breaks, all add to his arthritis aches and pains. But never one to miss a business opportunity, Knievel now advertises an arthritis pain killer on national television in America. That is just one of the Knievel endorsements. He has a new toy line coming out in time for Christmas (1998). Evel Knievel signature motorbikes which retails at $25,000 a time, t-shirts, signed photographs, kid’s bikes. The list goes on. Today (1998) Knievel is even more bankable just for his presence.
“They don’t ask me to jump. I just turn up, smile, pose for the cameras and they give me money. It is quite a career,” he says. “In the old days they, the promoters, wanted more and more from me. They wanted me to jump or spill my blood and break my bones. Every time they wanted me to jump further, and further, and further. Hell, they thought my bike had wings.”
Knievel’s feet are planted firmly on the ground the days. His last jump was in 1981. And he does miss the thrill. “People said I wasn’t scared before a jump. That is bullshit. I was scared. I’d have a shot of Wild turkey whisky before each jump to calm myself. “I’d get this knot in my stomach and this lump in my throat everytime. And I love that feeling. “People who go around wearing ‘No Fear’ t-shirts now are full of shit. Fear is high octane fuel for success. You have got to know how to handle it, how to harness it. If you risk your life you have got to have fear.”
Evel has been forced to find new ways of getting his adrenaline rush now that his is a frail old man before his time. He still rides his bike for enjoyment, and claims he can easily pull a wheelie if he needed to. But it hardly gets his heart pounding let alone start the knot in the stomach. Today, it is the pressure of high stakes gambling that keeps him going.
“The guy who built Caesar’s Palace once told me I was the biggest gambler Vegas had ever seen because I didn’t gamble with money. I gambled with my life,” he said. But now he gambles with money. Sauntering into the sports book gambling room of Bally’s casino in Las Vegas, the betting shop teller knows Evel well. He gets a respectful nod from all of the regulars sitting watching the giant screens relaying live pictures of baseball and American football.
“I won $13,000 in here last night,” he says as he lays another $1,300 on the slim chance that the L.A. Dodgers will break their losing streak that night. “I like to gamble and I am good, but I am no maniac. If I had just a dollar left, I would bet 50 cents. But not the whole dollar. that kind of gambling is for sniveling failures. I’d never want to have to snivel to someone because I couldn’t pay them. I won $100,000 on a game of golf once. I was playing Tyson Leonard at the Bay Tree golf course at Myrtle Beach. I eagled the first hole, which surprised both of us. I have only ever had a couple of eagles in my life. Then I didn’t drop another shot over par for the rest of the game. He paid up.” So Evel is still able to rise to the occasion.
Golf is his new passion and he attacks it with the same vigor that he used to reserve for racing up plywood ramps. It was on the golf course that he met his current girlfriend Krystal Kennedy, 29 (in 1998). Evel’s long suffering wife Linda stood by him during the endless affairs and high jinx of his life. But now they live separate lives. “She was bitching too much, and I can’t live with that,” Evel explained. “You know, I wasn’t put on this earth to sit and listen to bitching all the time. I was put here to have fun. “A woman is for loving and caring for. Who said they have to bitch? I have got no time for all that.”
Evel’s stance on women has been tainted by years of having them fawn all over him. He estimates he has slept with 2,000 of them and says he has met only a few who could resist him. “I had about two a week,” he said without a hint of exaggeration. “My record was eight in one 24-hour period. “It got to be a real problem. I had to see a psychiatrist. I asked him why it was that women kept throwing themselves at me and he explained it like this. He said, ‘look, to start with you are not a bad looking guy. Secondly, your identity is danger, women, their chemistry, are attracted to danger. Then you are Evel by name, but not by nature, so you won’t harm them. Women unhappy at home looking for an affair are just drawn to you like a magnet. You stick out lick a sore thumb. “I guess he was right. I am not bragging. It was true. I had to have security guards keep women from my hotel room.”
Even today, he still holds the same attraction to women. In 1986 Evel’s wicked ways made headlines again. After a night of drinking, Evel led an amorous woman back to his hotel room. “I had no idea she was the woman of the guy I had been drinking with,” Evel said. Furious, Evel’s drinking buddy persuaded the hotel’s front desk to give him a key to the room where Evel was having his evil way with his lady. “He opened the door, punched me in the nose and broke it. I sued the hotel for giving him the key and they had to pay me $33,000.” Such tales just add to the lore of Evel.
Now Evel has found happiness in the arms of 29-year-old Krystal, a former golfer for Florida state university. “Boy, she is a good golfer. She is a great girl.” The age difference doesn’t appear to bother either of them. “I don’t see what the fuss is about,” Evel says when asked about it. “I have had young women, I have had old women. So what?”
Even now, Evel has a flippant view of women, probably because he has found them so plentiful over the years. “You know, women are the root of all evil. And I know, I am Evel. “Look at Adam and eve. It wasn’t Adam who picked up the apple, was it? Ghengis Khan, brought down by a woman. “That ain’t going to happen to me. Maybe me and Krystal won’t be together forever. You know, women seem to forget who it is who buys the diamonds.
“Women are like buses. Good to ride on for 15 minutes. But they forget that if you get off, there will be another one along in 15 minutes. And another one, and another one.”
For a man supposedly at death’s door, Evel appears to be making a lot of long term plans. He hasn’t given up on life yet. He is collaborating with Hollywood hunk Matthew McConaughey on the film “Pure Evil.”. Then there is the Daredevil Cafe, a sort of Hard Rock Cafe for bike riders, which should become a reality in Las Vegas next year.
Strolling around Vegas, a town which clearly suits him, he still acts like he is in his heyday. He remembers each jump and can recall every minute detail. The names of his support team, the speed at which hit the ramp.
What he can’t remember is what he has to do the rest of the day. “I have Alzheimer’s too,” he said as he explained a series of sticky notes stuck to the dashboard of his truck. “If I don’t have these I forget everything.” But his mind easily recalls the glory days of Vegas when money came easily and the women were even easier.
“I knew Elvis. I knew Frank Sinatra, I used to drink with Lee Marvin,” he said. “Funny. If you had been asked back then to place your money on who would still be alive today, it wouldn’t be the stuntman you put your money on, would it? You wouldn’t have put you money on me.”
But unlike Elvis, Evel isn’t as recognizable today. The name still commands respect, but after being out of the headlines for 20 years, his face no longer is recognizable. Everyone remembers the devil-may-care young man straddling his bike, not a shuffling graying old man.
“Hi, I’m Evel Knievel,” he says in his slow drawl as he hands the keys of his oversized four-wheel drive to the valet parker. From the expression on the valet parker’s face you can tell he is impressed, but he still stares at Evel’s face for some kind of confirmation that it really is him. Walking through he casino, few realize that the man with the gaudy gold jewelry and ostrich leather jacket was once the toast of the town. Not even his gold hubcap sized belt buckle with the initial “K” in bold gives the game away. But Evel still walks down the center of the hallway, expecting the crowds to part before him as they once did.
Occasionally Evel leans heavily on his famous black cane. Embedded on the tip is a gold medal with the image of him on his motorbike beneath the words “Evel Knievel – Last of the Gladiators.” But even when the gladiator does go, his name will remain.
His son Robbie “Kaptain” Knievel followed in his dad’s tire treads and has actually beaten Evel’s jumping record. “Some people say it is easier now. His bike weighs about 200lbs less than the one I jumped with. The suspensions today are fantastic. But you know, you still have to have the guts to jump. You still have to be able to pull the trigger. I lost that. I got to the stage where I couldn’t pull the trigger any more.I am not going to take anything away from Robbie. He is a great rider,” he said.
Even though his son has carried on the family trade, he has never captured the imagination of the world like his dad. And at 36, he won’t be jumping for much longer. “You reach the stage where you can’t pull the trigger any more. That is when you have to get out.” And Evel would be happy to retire the name to the history books.
“When I was visiting my grandkids last month the youngest Jesse, he’s just seven, came up to me and said, ‘Granddad, you know it is going to be up to me a my brother Josiah to keep the family name going. “He was wearing his bicycle helmet and sitting on an Evel Knievel bike. I just rolled my eyes and said, ‘Jesus.’
Visiting his grandchildren and his hometown of Butte, Montana, Evel has been taking stock of his life as his health begins to slip away. He says he has few regrets. “There were a couple of women I should have screwed that I didn’t, there were a couple of ramps I wish I had hit a bit faster. But apart from that. I have had a good life.”
It is a life which took him from poverty and a life of crime to the heights of stardom and riches, and back down to earth again with a bump. He earned a fortune from his stunts and endorsements, but blew the lot. “It is said I earned $30 million in one year, but spent $31 million. That is probably true.”
Evel still lives well, but it is nothing compared to the life he once had. Two Lear jets, a fleet of luxury cars. Homes in Florida, Montana and Las Vegas. they have all gone. Now he is down to an apartment in Florida, one Aston Martin, a four-wheel drive and his collection of motorbikes. It is little to show for a fortune amassed.
“My Knievel toys made $300 million. I had the top selling pinball machine. My Evel Knievel action figure outsold both GI Joe and Barbie combined. But, yeah, most of the money has gone. The IRS claim I owe them $21 million. They can kiss my ass. And I told them if they send someone around to get it I won’t be responsible for what happens to him. “Money is for spending and enjoying. And I sure did enjoy it.
“Some people can only dream of such a life. I lived it. I was watching television the other day, a biography on the history channel of Aristotle Onasis. They talked about his wealth, his riches, and I wasn’t impressed. I had bigger boats than he did, bigger yachts. I had more Rolls-Royces, more Ferraris. I had more racehorses than he did. I screwed more women than he did. And they were better looking too.”
Of all his accomplishments, it is one footnote Evel wants made clear when his obituary is read around the world.
Kevin Smith is a British journalist writing out of Los Angeles. He started Splash News, a celebrity news service, when he arrived in America in 1990.Splash provides celebrity news, features and photographs to magazines and newspapers in 34 countries around the world.
Evel Knievel is listed with the Guinness Book of Records for the injuries he has sustained. Here is a break down of those injuries.
Fractured skull, broken nose, teeth, jaw, left and right clavicles, sternum, right arm, left arm, upper back (twice) lower back (twice) pelvis crushed, pelvis fractured (three times) right hip ball and socket replaced, right knee, right shin, toes right femur broken five times, left and right wrists, all ribs fractured at least once.
Thrills and spills of Evel
Falling during a motorbike race, Evel breaks his shoulder and collar bone
January 1, 1968:
Evel Knievel’s most famous fall. Attempting to clear the fountains at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, he lands awkwardly. His rag-doll somersaults leave him in a coma for 29-days with a shattered pelvis, fractured hip, and smashed right femur. Surgeons rebuild his leg with a two foot long, three inches wide strip of steel.
May 30 1971:
Both femurs are snapped after he tumbles clearing 13 Pepsi trucks in Yakima, Washington.
March 3, 1972:
Cow Palace, San Francisco. Broken back and concussion.
May 31 1975:
Wembley Stadium, London. Evel crashes after clearing 13 double decker buses. Despite a broken pelvis, he gets on his feet to reach the microphone and announce he will never jump again.
Jumping again, Evel fails during a practice run over a tank of killer sharks at Chicago Amphitheater. Concussion and two broken arms. A cameraman loses an eye from a flying piece of shrapnel.
Golf. A tumble near a bunker means Evel finally has to succumb to a hip replacement.
Jacuzzi. Slipping on a wet railing, he falls and breaks a rib
1938 Oct 17:
Robert Craig Knievel is born in the mining community of Butte, Montana.
In school, Robert Knievel holds records for push-ups and sit-ups.
Goes on to pole vault, ski jump and play for local hockey team.
He boxed, and raced stock cars and motorcycles.
Hustles in bars as a professional arm wrestler.
Worked as pit face worker in copper mine.
Arrested for kidnapping his future wife Linda.
Arrested for stealing hubcaps.
The name Evil Knievel is born. A prison guard jokes that he has local gangster “Awful Knofeel and “Evil Knievel the hub cap thief in the same cell. The name was later legally changed to Evel to avoid upsetting religious fans.
Stint in the army.
Salesman for Combined Insurance Company for America. Held record for most polices sold in one week. Left when it was discovered most were sold to inmates at a local mental asylum.
Crime spree across America with bank robbing gang. worked as their safe cracker. One member of team was caught and sentenced to 15 years.
Knievel the showman is born. Trying to attract attention to his motorcycle dealership, he leaps off a ramp and clear a mountain lion, but lands on a box of rattlesnakes, scattering the venomous snakes and the spectators.
Evel goes on to tour America with his motorcycle stunt show.
Cleared the 150 foot long fountains at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, but crashed upon landing.
Evel’s best jump. L.A. Coliseum. He clears 50 cars stacked four deep.
Evel’s ill-fated jump over Snake River Canyon. After watching two test rocket bikes plunge into the deep Idaho ravine, Evel launches himself as the world looks on. But the drogue parachute deploys on take off and he lands back on the same side he took off from. Despite blood pouring from his ears and eyes from the g-forces, the public feels cheated and Evel never recaptures the mystic.
Evel batters publicist Sheldon Saltman with a baseball bat. Evel said stories of drug use in a book Saltman wrote are lies. “I broke his arms so he couldn’t write anymore lies. I should have killed him,” Evel said. Evel serves just six months of three years. The arrest ruins his image as the All American hero forever.
Evel vanishes from public life with a bottle of beer in his hand.
Evel leaves. wife Linda.
Evel meets his current love, 29-year-old Krystal Kennedy.
Evel diagnosed with hepatitis C.
Caught with a selection of guns and knives in his car, Evel does 200 hours community service
Evel told he has months to live.
This interview with Evel is reprinted in the-vu. But Evel cheated death again and at time of writing Evel still lives.