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Evel Knievel: showman, rogue, reality TV Star

By Elaine Lies
/ Source: Reuters

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO, July 20 (Reuters Life!) - U.S. daredevil Evel Knievel, known for his spectacular motorcycle stunts and equally outrageous crashes, was a flamboyant showman, a master salesman, and perhaps even the forerunner of reality TV.

What he wasn't, says biographer Leigh Montville, was all that likable.

"He was an outrageous character, an interesting guy to figure out. He'd been a thief, he'd been an insurance salesman, he'd been a bad guy," Montville said in a recent phone interview about "Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil and Legend."

"He was a rogue, and not so much a lovable rogue. Just a rogue."

But in his heyday, Robert Craig "Evel" Knievel -- who died in 2007 at the age of 69 -- strode the stage of celebrity like a superhero in a red, whited and blue leather jumpsuit with a cape, his hair sculpted back in a tall pompadour.

Among his more incredible feats was a 1975 attempted jump over 13 double-decker buses in London's Wembley Stadium and a failed effort to ride a rocket-powered motorcycle across the Snake River Canyon in the U.S. state of Idaho in 1974. He walked away with minor injuries.

During his career he broke more than 40 bones in his body, including his back seven times.

Surprisingly, and perhaps a sign of different times, there was little fuss made about the basics of Knievel's act, which was basically a test virtually every time of whether he would live or die, Montville said -- and, as such, perhaps one of the first examples of reality TV.

"There was some talk about kids going out and breaking their collarbones and stuff, riding their little banana-seat bicycles and trying to push them over different obstacles," he said.

"But the basic concept of here's a guy, maybe he's going to die, let's tune in and see it -- and bring all the kids."

Born in Butte, Montana, Knievel said he was inspired at the age of eight when he saw an auto daredevil show and went on to live a personal life almost as painful as his job, including trouble with the law starting as a teenager.

He was dubbed "Evil Knievel" by a jailer in Montana after crashing his motorcycle while fleeing from police. He later changed the spelling to "Evel" as his daredevil career took off to avoid being perceived as a bad guy.

Among the tales that Montville tells is the fact that for all the stunts he pulled, Knievel's main money came from action figures -- a doll by any other name that was one of the bestselling toys for U.S. boys from 1973 to 1975.

"To kids he became an intimate figure like GI Joe or Barbie. They'd put him on the motorcycles and you revved it up and shot it off -- you could shoot it through fire, through puddles, through your sister's doll house," he said.

"Evel would fall off, but he'd be okay, and then you'd put him in your toybox at night. The toy was key to his whole operation financially."

This fell apart in 1977, when Knievel attacked a former promoter with a baseball bat and served several months in jail, losing most of his sponsorship. He lived in obscurity for close to the next 20 years.

Ultimately, Knievel's appeal was a combination of the ghoulish fascination of his stunts and a reluctant admiration for his daring, Montville said.

"He's the guy who jumped off the bridge, when the rest of us wouldn't jump. He's the guy who'd take all the double dares, and live fast," he added.

"Even the most sedate of us, in the back of our minds, say that maybe we should be doing that."