Being Evel


Long before the “X-Games”, and action sports superstars like skateboarder Tony Hawk and snowboarder Shaun White were household names, there was “Evel” Knievel – a larger than life daredevil who captivated America with his motorcycle feats in the 1970’s. His jumps over multiple line-ups of cars, vans, and buses were infamous, and television rating bonanzas in an era when there were only three stations to watch. In a new documentary released earlier this year, “Being Evel”, we get an entertaining and inside look at the life and times the original “extreme athlete”. Says one of the film’s producers and narrator, Johnny Knoxville, of MTV’s “Jackass” fame, “I didn’t think of him as a daredevil, I thought of him as a superhero.”

The film traces the career of Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel from an insurance salesman some describe as a hustler, to a mega sports entertainer, with action packed archival footage and interviews with family members and those who worked with him along the way. In the era of ABC Wide World of Sports, America was glued to their TV sets each time he jumped, and out of the 10 most watched episodes of the show, Knievel’s jumps are 7 of the most popular. While most motorcycle riders wore black, his red, white, and blue star spangled leather suit and cape made him an American hero.



Knievel was legendary as much for his bone breaking crashes as his successful landings, and it was the footage of him crashing after his notorious jump over the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in 1967, his body bouncing and flip-flopping for 60 yards, that made him most famous. He became national news that day, and lucrative sponsorship and licensing deals followed in an era before that was how athletes got rich. Says Knievel in the film, “Nobody wants to see me die, but they don’t want to miss it if I do.”

Knievel is descibed as insatiable, constantly seeking bigger jumps, more money, and despite being married with a family, more women. The film follows the arc of his career that like his jumps, most notably the Snake River Canyon, went up and came down. The build up to what was truly a crazy stunt was impossible to ignore. Billed as the “death defying stunt of the century”, it was watched by more 2 million people on Pay-Per-View and closed circuit television, but seemed destined to fail from the start. The Skycycle X-2, a steam rocket motorcycle descibed by some a tin can, was to launch Knievel over the mile wide canyon with G Forces of 350 mph, yet Knievel had no training, no parachute experience, and on two test runs the Skycycle crashed into the river. Says Geraldo Rivera, who interviewed him before the jump, “It was the kind of stunt where you would see a guy kill himself. It was so audacious. It was so daring. It was so almost impossible in many ways but for his confidence”.
Rigged with a parachute that deployed early on the takeoff, the jump fizzled and Skycycle dropped slowly into river. Knievel emerged unhurt, but so began his descent both literally and figuratively. He had become belligerent towards the media, who tore him up and it was widely questioned whether this was really a mechanical failure or the “Great Rip-Off of 1974”. He would continue to jump however, taking his act to London’s Wembley Stadium, and finally retiring after his longest jump of 14 Greyhound buses at Kings Island theme park in Ohio in 1975. But it was his maddest act of beating his former press secretary with a baseball bat, after the book he had authorized him to write was published, that brought about his ultimate decline. Sentenced to three years’ probation and six months in county jail, while publicly flaunting his brief incarceration, all sponsorship deals were revoked – cars, houses, money gone. Knievel was eventually forced to declare bankruptcy.

Evel Knievel died in 2007, and despite his ending is still considered an American icon.  For those of us who grew up in the 70’s and remember these televised jumps well, “Being Evel” is a fun look back and interesting view of how the phenomenon that was Evel Knievel all got started. Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, “Being Evel” is now available on Amazon Video.

 Images © Courtesy of Sundance Institute