Evel Knievel Classic Interview: "When I Die I'd Like To Come Back As A Stallion"

In the five years since he died, the legendary daredevil's reputation as a bona fide loon has remained intact. Here he is on injury, death and being reincarnated as a horse...
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In the five years since he died, the legendary daredevil's reputation as a bona fide loon has remained intact. Here he is on injury, death and being reincarnated as a horse...

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"Don't ask me any more goddam fuckin' questions! I'm going to answer theses the way I want to. Now do you want to answer these for me or just not even talk to me?" Two minutes in, Evel Knievel reveals that interviewing him is like trying to pick your way through a minefield.

Once adored for his death-defying stunts, bone-crushing crashes and supremely cool merchandise. Evel, 65, now walks with a stick rather than a swagger. Once he has cooled down he explains that he has a "temperament problem" due to coma-induced brain damage. Yet despite this and his titanium hip, his failing liver and his diabetes, Knievel still plans to come out of his 28-year retirement and make one last public jump this spring. Which leads us back to the one "goddam fuckin' question" that the world's greatest daredevil is reluctant to answer - why?

"When I die," says Evel, his gravel and dust tones rambling like a freight train, "I'd like to come back as a big stud stallion running through the winds, chasing all the mares around the field." If this cowboy is in a sombre mood it should come as little surprise. In 1993, Knievel was given just five years to live after contracting hepatitis C during a blood transfusion. Then in January 1999, he was granted a reprieve when a suitable donor was found and a liver transplant performed.

After a legendary career that saw him break 35 bones, endure 14 operations and survive a 29-day-long-coma the "Last Gladiator" must now take 48 pills a day just to stay alive. He claims to have no intention of going out in a blaze of glory, preferring to die in the arms of his young wife, Krystal, 34. So why gamble it all one last time?

Robert Craig Knievel was born on October 17, 1938 in Butte, Montana. "Butte was a tough town," he says, "when I was younger I'd get in a fight once a week." Knievel would always win, though, because despite being small in stature, he was as mean as a hungry dog and twice as tough. By the age of 15, the junior high sit-up, push-up and chin-up champion was cooling his heels in jail just like his daddy, after being caught stealing hubcaps. That's where he earned the nickname Evil Knievel, later changing the "i" to an "e" to avoid upsetting religious fans.

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Despite having been inspired by the TV programme Joey Chirwood's Auto Daredevil Show to start practising his first motorcycle jumps over mailboxes when he was 13, by the time he left school Evel was just a bad lad with a good name. He took a job working at the local copper mine and in the evenings he would hustle for extra bucks arm-wrestling in bars. A stint in the army kept him out of trouble for a while but by the early sixties he had embarked on a life of crime, working as a safe-cracker in a gang of thieves.

His dalliance with the underworld was brought to a halt when a member of the team was sentenced to 15 years. The shock cleared Evel's brain and soon after he resumed the pursuit of his childhood dream and set up Evel Knievel's Motorcycle Daredevils.

In 1965, Evel Knievel made the first of his 300 career jumps and with it, his first crash. "I jumped 50 rattlesnakes in a 90ft box and two mountain lions but smashed into thh edge of the box. All the snakes got out and the people had to run down the mountain," he says. "Of course, I got away."

This enduring fallibility was to be the key to Evel's success. People would no doubt have grown bored had his stunts always succeeded, but the gruesome prospect of a public death kept the world hooked. Knievel played on this with his plan to jump 151ft over the fountains outside Las Vegas' Caesar Palace on New Year's Day in 1968.

That morning, dressed in his soon-to-be trademark red, white and blue leathers and with a shot of Wild Turkey burning in his belly, he squared up to his challenge. Without any way of preparing for the stunt, all Evel could do as he gunned his faithful up the take-off ramp was hope and pray. The assembled crowd watched agog as this madman sailed effortlessly across the leaping jets of water.

Then, just as it looked as if he might make it, the bike's front wheel landed too hard and Evel somersaulted over the handlebars like a rag doll. Rushed to hospital, he lay in a come for almost a month with a shattered pelvis, fractures hip, and smashed right femur. When he woke up he was a national hero.

Evel Knievel must have been born under a lucky star. He bet his life on red, it came up black, yet by some miracle he still ended up winning. The Caesar's palace jump had transformed him from a two-bit stuntman into a superman. Decked out in stars and strupes and sporting overblown patriotism, Knievel was Captain America meets Jesus Christ, and he wasn't afraid to suffer for our sins.

"America was down on its ass when I came along," says Knievel today off his rocket ship ride to fame. "It needed somebody who was truthful and honest, someone who would spill blood and break bones. Somebody who wasn't a phoney."

From 1968-'75, Knievel packed out stadiums across the US as fans flocked to see him break and re-break his own records. His star shone so brightly that inevitably celebrities and loose women flocked to him. He counted Elvis among his closest drinking buddies and even, he admits, borrowed his style.

"I guess I thought I was Elvis Presley," he says, "but I'll tell you something - Elvis never fell off that pavement at no 80 miles per hour." But fame, fortune and questionable taste in jumpsuits weren't the only thing that these two Kings Of America shared. Like Elvis, Evel force-fed himself painkillers and alcohol to quell the pain and the fear, frequently taking sly nips from the bourbon stashed in his special Knievel cane. "People said I wasn't scared before a jump," he says. "That is bullshit, I'd have a shot of Wild Turkey whisky before each jump just to calm myself.

Of course, having a whole nation under your spell has its advantages. Despite being married to childhood sweetheart Linda, Evel estimates he slept with 2000 women. "I had about two a week," he says. "My record was eight in one 24-hour period. It got to be a real problem. I had to see a psychiatrist." By 1974, his kamikaze lifestyle was almost as reckless as his career. But one jump was about to change all that.

Snake River Canyon in Idaho is a quarter nuke wide and 800ft deep. Evel Knievel meant to jump it as his finest ever moment. Either that, or his last. Denied the chance to use the Grand Canyon by the government, Knievel leased a piece of land over Twin falls and declared he would leap it... or die trying. This time, however, he wouldn't be using a motorcycle but a specially designed rocket he called the Skycycle. If all went to plan, the steam-powered thrust engine would fire him across the canyon whereupon a parachute would deploy delivering him safely to earth, landing on a sort of pogo stick located in the rocket's nose.

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In the weeks building up to the stunt, his publicity machine went into overdrive, even going so far as to release a record on which Knievel says: "If I hit the wall head-on, I'm just going to get somewhere quicker where you are all going someday. And I'm going to sit there and have a beer and wait for you." If he was going to pop it, a live audience of 30,000 and millions of television viewers were determined not to miss the entertainment.

On September 8, 1974, with the world's eyes upon him, he climbed into the cockpit of the Skycycle. He was pretty scared. "When I got to the countdown, instead of going three, two, one, I just said, "God take care of me. Here I come."

Almost as soon as the rocket fired, Evel's parachute accidentally deployed and instead of hurtling across the ravine, the Skycycle wafter gently down to the riverbank below. The sense of anti-climax was unbearable; despite the blood pouring from his ears and eyes due to the G forces, Evel's fans felt they had been cheated. Much of America left its love for Evel Knievel at the bottom of that canyon.

After such a global scale humiliation, most people would prefer to crawl into a small box that face the public again. Not Evel. Accepting defeat had never been his style. Instead he travelled to London to jump over 13 single-decker buses in front of a packed Wembley Stadium. Despite clearing the boxes, 90,000 people watched aghast as Evel fudged the touchdown again. He was sent spinning over the handlebars of his Harley and didn't come to halt for a further 50 yards, when the trailing bike ploughed straight into his limp body.

Struggling with a broken hand, smashed pelvis, and a fractured spine, Knievel climbed to his feet, pushed past the stretcher bearers to the microphone and announced to the shocked audience that they would be "the last people in the world who will ever see me jump. I will never, ever, ever, ever jump again. I am through."

He did jump again, by the dream was almost over. In the winter of '76, the 36-year-old was seriously injured again, this time whole attempting to hurdle a tank full of man-eating sharks. Both his arms were broken and the stunt, which was intended for national television, was a PR disaster. In its wake Knievel announced his decision to retire, declairing his son Robbie, aka Kaptain Knievel, as his official successor.

Then, just when it appeared things couldn't get any worse, they did. Evel's ex-pulbicist Sheldon Saltman released a biography making allegations about his former employer's drug abuse. Knievel reacted badly to the news and attacked him in a car park with a baseball bat. "I broke his arms so he couldn't write anymore lies," he says, "I should have killed him." The stuntman was sentenced to three years and although he only served six months, his All-American image was seriously tarnished and Evel vanished from public life.

As Evel approaches the winter of his life, things couldn't be much sweeter, but Evel is still not content. The proliferation of reality TV stunt programmes makes him mad. "Movie magic is bullshit," he says, determined to show the world he is the only "real life risk taker" by performing one last jump, although as yet he's unsure what he will actually leap.

"I have a lot of companies who want me to jump their trucks and cars," he says. "I may jump over 200 beautiful naked women, laying face down - ramp to ramp and rump-to-rump. If I miss, the landings will be so smooth and so soft it won't be a problem."

As our conversation draws to a close on a slightly better tone than it began, I take my chance and again ask him the question that will no doubt dog him until the day he dies. Why?

"Because I want to," he drawls, "Because I'm Evel Knievel. That's my life."