CLEARWATER, Florida – Evel Knievel’s hard life killed him — it just took longer than he or anyone else might have expected.
The hard-living motorcycle daredevil, whose bone-breaking, rocket-powered jumps and stunts made him an international icon in the 1970s, died Friday. He was 69.
He had been in failing health for years, suffering from diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable condition that scarred his lungs. He had undergone a liver transplant in 1999 after nearly dying of hepatitis C, likely contracted through a blood transfusion after one of his many spills. He also suffered two strokes in recent years.
Longtime friend and promoter Billy Rundle said Knievel had trouble breathing at his Clearwater condominium and died before an ambulance could get him to a hospital.
“It’s been coming for years, but you just don’t expect it. Superman just doesn’t die, right?” said Rundle, organizer of the annual “Evel Knievel Days” festival in the daredevil’s Butte, Mont., hometown.
Knievel’s son Kelly, 47, said he had visited his father in Clearwater for Thanksgiving.
“I think he lived 20 years longer than most people would have” after so many injuries, Kelly Knievel said. “I think he willed himself into an extra five or six years.”
Immortalized in the Washington’s Smithsonian Institution as “America’s Legendary Daredevil,” Knievel was best known for a failed attempt to jump an Idaho canyon on a rocket-powered cycle and a spectacular crash at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. He suffered nearly 40 broken bones before he retired in 1980.
For the tall, thin daredevil, the limelight was always comfortable, the gab glib. There always were mountains to climb, feats to conquer.
“No king or prince has lived a better life,” he told The Associated Press in May 2006. “You’re looking at a guy who’s really done it all. And there are things I wish I had done better, not only for me but for the ones I loved.”
He garbed himself in red, white and blue and had a knack for outrageous yarns: “Made $60 million, spent 61. …Lost $250,000 at blackjack once. … Had $3 million in the bank, though.”
Knievel’s career began to take a downturn in 1977 after he was sentenced to six months in jail for attacking former television executive Sheldon Saltman with a baseball bat. Saltman, whose left arm and wrist were shattered, told The Associated Press on Saturday that he hoped Knievel was “at peace.”
“I’ve always felt pity for him,” said Saltman, 76, who still has a $12.75 million judgment pending against Knievel that, with interest, he estimates has grown to more than $100 million.
“He was a true daredevil, but he basically was not a good human being,” Saltman said.
Knievel said after the attack that he had been offended by Saltman’s book “Evel Knievel On Tour.”
Saltman, who maintains he never meant to offend, said Saturday he would not drop the judgment and plans to go after Knievel’s estate.
Knievel had enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years. He made a good living selling autographs and endorsing products. Thousands came to Butte every year as his legend was celebrated during “Evel Knievel Days.”
“They started out watching me bust my ass, and I became part of their lives,” Knievel said. “People wanted to associate with a winner, not a loser. They wanted to associate with someone who kept trying to be a winner.”
Two days before his death, it was announced that he and rapper Kanye West had settled a federal lawsuit over the use of Knievel’s trademarked image in a popular West music video.
He began his daredevil career in 1965 when he formed a troupe called Evel Knievel’s Motorcycle Daredevils, a touring show in which he performed stunts such as riding through fire walls, jumping over live rattlesnakes and mountain lions and being towed at 200 mph behind dragster race cars.
In 1966 he began touring alone, barnstorming the West and doing everything from driving the trucks, erecting the ramps and promoting the shows. In the beginning he charged $500 for a jump over two cars parked between ramps.
He steadily increased the length of the jumps until, on New Year’s Day 1968, he was nearly killed when he jumped 151 feet across the fountains in front of Caesar’s Palace. He cleared the fountains but the crash landing put him in a coma for a month.
His son Robbie Knievel followed in his father’s daredevil footsteps and successfully completed the same jump in April 1989.
In the years after the crash, the fee for the elder Knievel’s performances increased to $1 million for his jump over 13 buses at Wembley Stadium in London — the crash landing broke his pelvis — to more than $6 million for the Sept. 8, 1974, attempt to clear the Snake River Canyon in Idaho in a rocket-powered “Skycycle.”
The parachute malfunctioned and deployed after takeoff. Strong winds blew the cycle into the canyon, landing him close to the swirling river below.
On Oct. 25, 1975, he jumped 14 Greyhound buses at Kings Island in Ohio.
Knievel decided to retire after a jump in the winter of 1976 in which he was again seriously injured. He suffered a concussion and broke both arms in an attempt to jump a tank full of live sharks in the Chicago Amphitheater. He continued to do smaller exhibitions around the country with his son, Robbie.
Many of his records have been broken by daredevil motorcyclist Bubba Blackwell.
Knievel also dabbled in movies and TV, starring as himself in “Viva Knievel” and with Lindsey Wagner in an episode of the 1980s TV series “Bionic Woman.” George Hamilton and Sam Elliott each played Knievel in movies about his life.
Evel Knievel toys accounted for more than $300 million in sales for Ideal and other companies in the 1970s and ’80s.
Born Robert Craig Knievel in the copper mining town of Butte on Oct. 17, 1938, Knievel was raised by his grandparents. He traced his career choice back to the time he saw Joey Chitwood’s Auto Daredevil Show at age 8.
Knievel also worked in the Montana copper mines, served in the Army, ran his own hunting guide service, sold insurance and ran Honda motorcycle dealerships. At various times and in different interviews, Knievel claimed to have been a swindler, a card thief, a safe cracker, a holdup man.
Evel Knievel married his hometown girlfriend, Linda Joan Bork, in 1959. They separated in the early 1990s. They had four children, Kelly, Robbie, Tracey and Alicia.
Robbie Knievel followed in his father’s footsteps as a daredevil, jumping a moving locomotive in a 200-foot, ramp-to-ramp motorcycle stunt on live television in 2000. He also jumped a 200-foot-wide chasm of the Grand Canyon.
Knievel lived with his longtime partner, Krystal Kennedy-Knievel, splitting his time between their Clearwater condo and Butte. They married in 1999 and divorced a few years later but remained together. Knievel had 10 grandchildren and a great-grandchild. –MITCH STACY, Associated Press Writer