Evel Knievel was a man few really knew, a man even fewer really wanted to know. He was an uncompromising man, a man of many contusions, a Jesus-y man. He was an alive man. Most of him. But not anymore.
But whether Evel Knievel died generations ago, like most people expected him to, or just last week (Friday, November 30), die is exactly what Evel did, and dead is exactly what Evel is. The fearless and flashy 69-year-old Darer of Devils who colored my boyhood dreams with high-impact death wishes and a tragic fear of deep-tissue bruising has succumbed at last to that fate that decades of occupational hazards, professional suicide attempts, a coma, two strokes, someone else's liver, the murderous determination of gravity, fistfights with Hells Angels, a really grumpy attitude, and Lindsay Wagner had all failed to visit upon him, and this sad vale of tears is a far less star-spangled place.
He's survived by Kanye West. But just barely.
Evel Knievel touched my life in many unexpected ways. My hometown was his hometown—Butte, Montana, be quiet, I'll smack you—and in that small, mean, dusty old mining town, Evel was, and is to this very moment, the "shit."
I ate deep-fried pork-chop sandwiches at Evel's favorite deep-fried pork-chop sandwich restaurant. His autographed poster hung on my wall. He lived on a big gated compound on the grounds of the Butte Country Club, where my mother worked, and we'd all drive through the snow to see the giant electric Christmas Santas and snowmen and reindeer that old Evel had his people put up every year. Evel Knievel struck a major minor chord in the background noise of my earliest existence, like my Incredible Hulk Big Wheel, or the Dirty Uncle Christmas Incident. Indeed, my formative years were spent under the long and figurative shadow (and allegedly sometimes under the long and literal nephew) of this man they called "Evel."
But in my earliest memory of Evel Knievel, he was naked and in the microwave. "I was the first real person to be the subject of a successful action figure and toy line," Evel once bragged in an interview, and he was correct. But he was also "Evel Knievel Action Figure Microwave Pie." The recipe: Take one semifresh Evel Knievel poseable action figure that you got for Christmas but don't want anymore. Shuck the Old Glory–flavored Velcro jumpsuit from the little pink plastic body, and check between the legs in vain for anatomical correctness (rats!). Remove the tiny white gloves (so dandy!) and the star-spangled helmet. Toss them. Force the doll's limbs into sexually suggestive positions and wonder if he's spinning in his grave yet. Then chuck the thing into the microwave on HIGH until something horrible happens, and behold the magic. It's a dish you make once in a lifetime.
In the end, it's the melted plastic we remember. And the little leather cape.
But the Evel Knievel "story" is as striped as his jumpsuit, and twice as snazzy. He began his celebrated life of fame and fortune by dropping out of high school. This was indeed the exact same high school that I would have dropped out of, had I dropped out, and that both of my parents before me would have dropped out of, had they dropped out, and most of my grandparents before them. (Tragically, we all graduated.) My mother remembers Evel as something of a stud in her school days, athletic, easy to look at, crazy, not expected to survive. My father was taking a nap.
Evel was born "Robby" in Butte on October 17, 1938, to Robert Edward and Ann Knievel, and he became "Evel" sometime soon after in jail. After a period of professional indigence, he explored various career options, mostly temp work—including swindler, card cheat, motorcycle thief, safe cracker, holdup man, and con—exactly the kind of man that 1970s America demanded in a children's action toy. One day he discovered his deep hatred of his own bones, and his long career of crushing them to dust was born.
Evel Knievel married his hometown girlfriend, Linda Joan Bork, in 1959, and they had four children, and then those children had children, and so on. (Experts fear a day that the earth will teem with trillions of Knievels.) Many of these people never speak to each other. The couple separated in the 1990s, and some say he "ruined her," but I'm not exactly sure what they mean by that, or who they are, or what they'll do to me. In 1999, Evel got a new liver, and a new wife, possibly in a promotional buy-one-get-one type of thing. He was still on his second wife and liver when he died.
Evel was a man who feared neither speed nor heights nor spiders probably, but he especially didn't fear contradictions: "People wanted to associate with a winner, not a loser," he once observed. "They wanted to associate with someone who kept trying to be a winner." Evel Knievel never won anything, technically speaking, nor was he really expected to. Mostly he just crashed horribly and was grievously injured for money. (All of his biggest jumps ended in disaster.) But he'd get up again, damn it, and he'd spit in death's eye, do it all again, and make some more money. Then he'd spend all that money on booze and hookers and Frank Sinatra records and men's gold jewelry and declare bankruptcy. And it is in this attitude, more than anything else perhaps, that lies the deepest and truest essence of Evel Knievel. I mean besides the rock opera. (Pure adrenaline!)
Evel's most resonant and enduring contribution to the world came on November 5, 1977, when he appeared as his bold and beautiful self in "Motorcycle Boogie," the pivotal Bionic Woman episode in which he and Jaime Sommers have to steal back the top-secret computer tape that the KGB stole first. "I'm from Butte, Montana!" he yells at Jaime in one electrifying scene. "And I'll be happy if I ever get to see it again!"
Evel will not get to see Butte again, strictly speaking, but he is scheduled to be buried there Monday, December 10. Two thousand mourners are expected to attend the memorial service, and I bet most of them are into shit like NASCAR and Mama's Family. I'm just saying.
When Evel felt the first tickle of death's icy handshake last month, the brave old son of a bitch released a sad final statement urging people to "chase their dreams and get up if they fail." He said, "I've never stayed down for long," and he wanted us to understand that his "only quest" had been "to do my best, to stand alone, to be a man." And that is exactly what he was and what he shall be remembered as—a doer, a stander, and a man. A man brave enough to launch himself at anything except sobriety, paying his taxes, and hugging his children. And he's gone from us now.
He was Evel Knievel. He was glam. He was depressing. He was Christmas.