February 18, 2018

Something Evel


As a dorky kid, I gotta say I was born at the perfect moment in history. Of course these days the world has left me far behind, and I find myself unable to communicate with most people, but back in the Seventies, mainstream culture could not have been more nourishing for the dorks and nerds and geeks who didn’t give a toss about sports or what brand of sneakers was considered cool.

            My very early years corresponded with the release of the original Planet of the Apes films (as well as the later TV series and Saturday morning cartoon). It was a golden era for made-for TV horror movies like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Trilogy of Terror. I was seven when The Night Stalker first aired, nine when it became a series of it’s own. That same year, 1974, was a high-water mark for all-star disaster movies, With the release of both Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. I was ten when Jaws hit theaters, and went to see it well over a dozen times. It was also a golden era for High Strangeness, with a nationwide obsession with UFOs, Bigfoot, The Loch Ness Monster, The Bermuda Triangle, Ancient Astronauts and other such phenomena spawning endless books, magazines, TV shows, and a string of Sunn Classic feature documentaries. The much-hyped remake of King Kong came out when I was eleven (saw that one over a dozen times too), and when I was twelve I was witness to the Greatest Single Year in Hollywood History. Yes, there was Star Wars (only saw that nine times), but it was dwarfed in my mind by the likes of Squirm, Rollercoaster, The Car, Exorcist II: The Heretic, Jaws 2, Empire of the Ants, The Sentinel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Airport ’77, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and so many other mainstream genre pictures. It was heaven to a pre-adolescent geek like myself.

            It wasn’t long after that I was bugging my folks to take me to The Deer Hunter, The Tin Drum, and Apocalypse Now, but the simple geeky weirdness of the previous decade still remains dear to me as one of the most formative periods of my life. It wasn’t all about movies and television shows, either.

            That summer of 1977 also witnessed, in and amongst all those other wonderments, the release of Viva Knievel. Apart from a slew of TV specials, there had also been an earlier feature about Evel Knievel, the 1971 American International biopic written by John Milius, directed by Marvin Chomsky, and starring the unlikely George Hamilton as Knievel. But while that film went a long way toward imprinting the daredevil on the American cultural landscape, Viva Knievel, in which Evel starred as himself, marked the unofficial end of his public career.

            It was, I must admit, a godawful movie, a family friendly affair co-starring not only the great Marjoe Gortner, but Gene Kelly, Red Buttons, Lauren Hutton, Leslie Nielsen, Cameron Mitchell and Albert Salmi. Seeing that list now, it looks like the cast of a disaster movie, which in a way it was. In between stunts, Knievel (who should never have been allowed to act) battles evil drug dealers and saves a bunch of orphans. In many ways it was a throwback to the Wallace Beery wrestling pictures of the early Forties, but without Wallace Beery. It also worked as a vehicle that allowed Knievel to air his gripes with the press, his staff, feminists, those young upstart daredevils who thought they could snatch his crown, and anyone else he didn’t like. Even as a kid I recognized it was a stinker. Had it come out a few short years earlier I might have had a different take.

            Although the name is still well-known and a couple of new Hollywood biopics are in the works, it’s hard to explain to people who weren’t around in the early Seventies just what a phenomenon Knievel was. At the core of it he was just a fairgrounds daredevil who jumped his Harley Davidson 750 over trucks. With an added splash of showbiz pizzazz, however, he became a real-life superhero in a star-spangled white jumpsuit, a personalized matching helmet, a cape and a swagger stick. He was an indestructible flying Elvis. After footage of his monumental crash at Caesar’s Palace in 1967 put him on the national radar, and after a deal was cut with Wide World of Sports, every new jump it seemed became a Must-See Event. Every time he appeared on Wide World, it was a two-hour spectacle, with a long buildup featuring interviews, history, and another replay of that Caesar’s Palace footage, all leading up to five seconds of excitement as he made another jump over sixteen Mack trucks, or eighteen, or twenty-two, as each time had to be a new record.

            By 1972 he had become one of the most recognized men on the planet. The closest parallel I can think of was the level of fame achieved by Harry Houdini half a century earlier. Every time he staged a new jump, damn near every kid in America tuned in to watch. Sure, there was a certain level of natural bloodthirstiness to it, that secret or not so secret desire to see him crash, but that didn’t matter to the sponsors.

            Kids loved him because he was the closest thing we had to a real comic book hero. Parents liked him because he seemed a wholesome, upstanding fellow who doled out wholesome advice to the youngsters about listening to parents, staying in school, staying away from drugs and always being safety conscious. In retrospect I think part of the real attraction was that Knievel was a flashy, exciting, and ultimately harmless distraction away from Watergate, Vietnam, violent student protests and a world that seemed to be going to hell in the aftermath of the Sixties.

            An entire mythology grew up around Knievel, from his childhood as an out-of-control teenage hooligan in Montana to the number of bones he’d broken to his gaudy jewelry collection to the contents of his swagger stick.

            In an odd way, he was a daredevil who was remembered more for his failures than his successes, but that didn’t matter, either. If you were an eight-year-old named “Knipfel” in the Age of Knievel, there was simply no getting away from it. He became a one-man empire who lent his name and image to every product imaginable, and I had them all—the lunch box, the paint-by-numbers kit, the rev-up toy motorcycle and doll (which didn’t really work very well), stickers, patches, posters, quickie paperbacks and magazines. He even endorsed Chuckles candy. I had a massive scrapbook of every news clipping I came across, and an autographed photo hung on my wall. Every kid who had a bicycle back then, it seems, wanted to be Evel, setting up makeshift ramps in the driveway and jumping over other bikes, toys, neighbor kids, or whatever was handy. There were comic books and a Saturday morning cartoon series which, though not based on Knievel himself, was certainly inspired by him. There were Knievel references everywhere, from Johnny Carson to the movie Earthquake to that famous episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie jumps the trash cans. My own obsession (again the name thing helped) reached such levels my dad even got me a little minibike, though that only caused trouble.

            He had infiltrated the culture as thoroughly as Muhammad Ali, but in a different way. After he converted to Islam and started mouthing off about the war and Black Power, Ali scared the shit out of people. All Knievel did was talk about how great he was at jumping his motorcycle over objects, and everyone seemed to like that a lot more. Plus he seemed to be a Republican, what with all that red, white and blue paraphernalia.

            Long before he became a national icon, Knievel (whose ego was never in question) was bragging that one day he was going to jump over the Grand Canyon. That’s where his downfall began. As the years passed and reporters kept asking about the boast, the claims gradually grew more modest. Finally in 1974 he bought a swath of land on either side of the (much smaller) Snake River Canyon and hired famed rocket engineer Robert Truax to build him a SkyCycle. The proposed jump turned into one of the most wildly hyped events of the decade. Instead of airing on Wide World of Sports, it could only be seen live via a closed circuit pay-per-view screening. It became the biggest closed-circuit event in history up to that point, topping even Elvis’ Aloha From Hawaii concert.

            As we all know now, it was a massive flop, as the rocket’s parachute ejected the moment it took off, dropping Knievel and the SkyCycle into the river below. The event became a national joke, and Knievel’s star dimmed considerably, as people wondered if it really had been a mechanical malfunction as he claimed, or if he’d lost his nerve and hit the parachute button at the last second.

            Still, he soldiered on, sort of, doing a few jumps here and there. After famously crashing in Wembley Stadium on Wide World, he told the audience afterward he would never jump again. It wasn’t exactly true.

            Long before “jumping the shark” became a cynical phrase denoting a desperate attempt to remain relevant, Knievel embodied it both literally and figuratively, and a year before the Happy Days episode that gave us the term. In 1976, at another pay-per-view event in Chicago, he was supposed to jump over a pool full of sharks, but landed in the hospital after an accident during rehearsal, long before the cameras were rolling. The broadcast went on without him.

            After that, though he made a few promises about upcoming stunts that never materialized, and despite that movie, he faded away, only popping up in the news now and again after, say, getting yet another liver transplant or attacking one of his former publicists with an aluminum baseball bat.

            It occurs to me now that Knievel’s fall from the spotlight, coincidentally or not, came after the end of the Vietnam War and Gerald Ford’s brief presidency, which itself brought the Watergate era to a close. Maybe we didn’t need that kind of distraction anymore.

            Among my other childhood memorabilia, I had a windbreaker emblazoned with a patch that read, “Evel Knievel, America’s Greatest Hero.” I didn’t think much about it at the time, simply accepted it as true. Then a few years ago I recalled the message stitched on that patch and thought, “Wait, what?” Then I further recalled that in the standard opening spiel he gave audiences before every stunt, he compared what he was doing with Neil Armstrong, the early American settlers, and Christopher Columbus.

            Wait, what? All those people undertook journeys into the unknown that involved unfathomable risk and had far reaching implications for the future of the entire planet. You, meanwhile, jump your motorcycle over trucks. The Houdini comparison I’ll buy, maybe even Wallace Beery or Elvis, but Neil Armstrong? That’s simple mind-boggling foolishness.

            After so many years of hanging on to him as one of those iconic figures from my childhood, I at last started asking, what the hell was I thinking? In fact, what the hell were we all thinking? He was just a damned motorcycle daredevil, for godsakes!

            When I was a kid, that 1971 biopic was a funny and crazy rags-to-riches story about a street punk from Montana making the big time. Going back to it again I realize, even that early in the Knievel game, Milius had painted him as a drunken, racist, wife-beating drug addict and paranoid with a grossly overinflated ego. Given all the less-than flattering stories that started coming out about Knievel in later years, it turns out Milius was pretty much on the mark.

            In a long, career-spanning interview recorded a few years before his death, Knievel came off as a bitter and angry man with a real knack for justifying his own abominable behavior and blaming every failure of his career on someone else, usually a member of his staff. It was a far cry from the superhero image he’d cultivated in the early Seventies.

            Back in the mid-Nineties, I became friends with Dave Herscher. At the time he’d been the chief publicist for the New York Marathon for over twenty years. Prior to that. However, he had been Evel Knievel’s publicist, handling press for the Snake River Canyon fiasco and much of what followed until Evel’s retirement. Let’s just say his memories of working for Evel (who referred to him as “the skinny Jew”) are less than fond ones. He has a mountain of great stories to tell, but the day after Knievel died in 2007, he sent me the following thought:

            “Maybe they should have put him in the old Sky Cycle again and sent it up. It’d be great if he cleared the Snake River Canyon and didn’t even know it. Ah, but the religious folks would say that he knew and was looking down and smiling. I prefer the looking up and…well.”

            Although destroying heroes is a long-held American tradition, and while we seem to be in the midst of an era in which the practice has been thrown into hyperdrive, this is more a question of looking back at a time and a figure who through the magic of marketing hype had been morphed from a re-imagined barnstorming pilot into some kind of American savior without anyone noticing. Considering everything else that was going on in the Seventies, when people were desperate for a savior of any kind, given the shallow, glitz-blinded nature of the country, a savior in a cape and jumpsuit on a motorcycle was just about perfect. As much a throwback as he was to an earlier part of the century, he still came to fully embody what the Seventies were all about. But you get right down to it, he was just an asshole.


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