It was fitting that Evel Knievel wore a cape. For years, he’d gun his motorcycle up a ramp and hurtle skyward, leaping over impossible obstacles—a wall of flames, 14 buses, 20 cars—as his audience held its collective breath, waiting for a perfect landing or a spectacular, bone-crunching crash. “He was like a superhero,” says longtime friend Billy Rundle.
Knievel, 69, lived so far over the edge that his quiet end—dying at his home in Clearwater, Fla., beside his ex-wife Krystal (who continued to live with him), following a long battle with pulmonary fibrosis—almost seems a surprise. But Knievel “knew the end was coming,” says his oldest son, Kelly Knievel, 47. “He wasn’t afraid of dying. He was tough as nails right to the end.” He had to be, given the litany of ailments that plagued him. Held together by a patchwork of titanium pins and aluminum plates, Knievel used a morphine drip to ward off the constant pain that comes from breaking more than 35 bones. He suffered from diabetes and a recent stroke, and a liver transplant in 1999 saved his life following hepatitis C. Still, says his friend Paul Blanda, Knievel “didn’t dwell on being sick. He was so full of life.”
Born Robert Craig Knievel, he grew up in hardscrabble Butte, Mont. Twice married and a father of four (son Robbie also became a stunt motorcyclist), Knievel was bit by the daredevil bug at age 8 after he saw a stunt show. Following several arrests for petty crimes, a local jailer nicknamed him Evil. Knievel changed the spelling and in 1965 formed Evel Knievel’s Motorcycle Daredevils. His early jumps seem almost quaint now—over rattlesnakes and mountain lions. Then in 1967 he jumped the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The subsequent crash left him in a coma for a month but won him a national following.
In 1974 he attempted to fly across Snake River Canyon in Idaho in a rocket-powered cycle. The parachute, however, deployed early, sending Knievel drifting to the canyon floor unharmed. He retired two years later. He spent much of his life marketing his image; toy companies sold an estimated $300 million of Knievel toys and action figures. One year at Evel Knievel Days, an annual festival in Butte, his risk-it-all approach was obvious as Knievel and Billy Rundle watched the motocross daredevils. One of them spread his arms while in flight. “Evel turned to me and said, ‘What the [heck] was that?'” says Rundle. “I said, ‘Look what you’ve done.’ He just smiled. He knew.”