Evel Knievel: showman, rogue, reality TV star

Wed Jul 20, 2011 8:46am EDT
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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - 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 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.   Continued...

<p>Former motorcycle daredevil Robert Craig "Evel" Knievel enters the Sunnyvale Municipal Court with his girlfriend Krystal Kennedy before pleading not guilty to weapons charges, October 25, 1994. REUTERS/Blake Sell</p>