From New York Times bestselling author Leigh Montville, this riveting and definitive new biography pulls back the red, white, and blue cape on a cultural icon—and reveals the unknown, complex, and controversial man known to millions around the world as Evel Knievel.
Evel Knievel was a high-flying daredevil, the father of extreme sports, the personification of excitement and danger and showmanship . . . and in the 1970s Knievel represented a unique slice of American culture and patriotism. His jump over the fountains at Caesar’s Palace led to a crash unlike anything ever seen on television, and his attempt to rocket over Snake River Canyon in Idaho was something only P. T. Barnum could have orchestrated. The dazzling motorcycles and red-white-and-blue outfits became an integral part of an American decade. Knievel looked like Elvis . . . but on any given Saturday afternoon millions tuned in to the small screen to see this real-life action hero tempt death.
But behind the flash and the frenzy, who was the man? Bestselling author Leigh Montville masterfully explores the life of the complicated man from the small town of Butte, Montana. He delves into Knievel’s amazing place in pop culture, as well as his notorious dark side—and his complex and often contradictory relationships with his image, the media, his own family, and his many demons. Evel Knievel’s story is an all-American saga, and one that is largely untold. Leigh Montville once again delivers a definitive biography of a one-of-a-kind sports legend.
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Three-time New York Times bestselling author LEIGH MONTVILLE is a former columnist at the Boston Globe and former senior writer at Sports Illustrated. He is the author of The Mysterious Montague, The Big Bam, Ted Williams, At the Altar of Speed, Manute, and Why Not Us? He lives in Boston.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
From the Introduction
The first biography of Evel Knievel was written in the winter of 1970–71 in three days, maybe four, maybe five, hard to remember, in a house in Palm Springs, California, that was owned or borrowed or maybe just rented by George Hamilton, the actor. The sound of the typing—yes, an actual typewriter was used to do the job—was drowned out by the high-fidelity, 331⁄3 vinyl majesty of a series of Strauss waltzes that were played constantly from the latest in stereophonic equipment, each note bouncing off the white walls and white ceilings and white furniture and out the open windows to the swimming pool, where assorted women sunbathed without the stifling confinement of clothes.
The first biography of Evel Knievel, of course, was a screenplay.
The writer was twenty-seven-year-old John Milius. He had been hired on the cheap, a flat fee of $5,000, and asked to pound out a script about a thirty-one-year-old motorcycle daredevil from Butte, Montana, who had begun—but only begun—to capture the attention of assorted pockets of the American public. The deal was enhanced by the delivery of some fine Cuban cigars, secured from Colonel Tom Parker, best known as the manager of singer Elvis Presley, and the promise that upon completion of his duties Milius would be treated to an afternoon of what he called “commercial affection” with one of the undressed women at the pool.
He tore into his work. A macho, firearm-loving graduate of the Uni- versity of Southern California School of Film, frustrated by the fact that his asthma had kept him out of the Vietnam War, which he saw as the great historic moment of his time, Milius was part of a group of young writers, directors, and producers like Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spiel- berg, and George Lucas who were in the first throes of success in the film industry. They were all grabbing ideas out of the air, slamming them down on paper, hurrying, hurrying, trying to get things done in a rush because they didn’t know how long their good fortune would last.
Milius was in the midst of that hurry-hurry stretch of creativity. He had written part of the script for the movie Dirty Harry, starring Clint Eastwood, which soon would be released...
(“I know what you’re thinking—‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ ” Clint/Harry said in the most memorable monologue. “Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kind of lost track myself. But, being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question, ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well do ya, punk?”)
...Work on Jeremiah Johnson, which would star Robert Redford, was pretty much finished, and Milius’s next project was The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, which would star Paul Newman. The pieces of dialogue for Apocalypse Now (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”) already were floating around in his busy head. Evel Knievel fit in there quite well too.
The idea of a guy, some crazy son of a bitch, jumping over an ever-growing string of parked cars on a motorcycle was revolutionary, different, funky, extreme. The story offered a combination of noise, smoke, crashes, broken bones, white motorcycle leathers, American individual- ism, and a long middle finger lifted directly at all forms of authority. This was a definite plus in a time of long middle fingers everywhere pointed at all forms of authority. Add a dash of romance, maybe a warning about trying any of these stunts at home. Shake well. Pour.
This was fun.
“The whole thing was modern and absurd,” Milius said years later.
“This character going over trucks on his motorcycle, riding through flaming hoops and all that. I just settled down and did it. I played that one record of Strauss waltzes over and over again. (I love Strauss waltzes.) I wandered around the white furniture, white walls, felt I soiled anything I touched. There was a bumper pool table in the house. I took breaks. I learned how to play bumper pool.”
This was a lot of fun.
Facts were not a problem. Milius had never met Evel Knievel and had never been to the copper-mining splendor/grime of Butte, Montana, but that didn’t matter much. First of all, the foundation of Knievel’s life story was filled with half-truths, semi-truths, and flat-out whoppers anyway, a collection of tall tales designed by the man himself to make people perk up and pay attention. He would say anything to make himself more marketable. Second, the task was not so much to write an actual portrayal of Evel Knievel’s life, but to write a vehicle for George Hamilton to look very good on a motorcycle in the leading role. Hamilton had put the production together, hoping to energize a career that had grown fuzzy in the wilds of network television with a couple of canceled series. He wanted to add a little hair and grit to his perceived image as a well-tanned playboy.
Milius was handed a first script, written by someone else, but hated it and threw it into the swimming pool. (Hamilton eventually made him retrieve the soggy pages.) The basis for a new script was a long magazine article, a few interviews on first-generation videotape, and Milius’s active imagination.
A disclaimer (“based on incidents in Evel Knievel’s life”), tagged on the end of the story, allowed Milius to do just about anything. He invented characters, invented dialogue, invented scenes that never had happened in Knievel’s life. He had a car disappear, swallowed into the hollowed-out, heavily tunneled ground of Butte, directly at an adolescent Knievel’s feet (never happened). He had an aging rodeo cowboy die, thrown from a bull, right before Knievel’s first jump (never happened). He took single sentences from Knievel’s résumé and inflated them into fat, pop-art events, quite different from what actually happened.
The Milius version of the character had tongue planted well into cheek, wry and funny most of the time. A chase with the Butte police, Knievel on motorcycle, police in a too-slow patrol car, was played completely for laughs. The same was true for Knievel’s courtship with his wife as he rode his cycle straight into a sorority house, past the stammering house-mother, up the stairs to the second floor, through squealing, pajama-clad residents, and back down the stairs and out the front door with his bride-to-be holding on to him for dear imperiled life. A dwarf with a cowboy hat was written into the script as a friend of Knievel’s. Knievel was written as a hypochondriac, a comic contrast to all of his experience with doctors and hospitals. The language often was outrageous. The paying customers all wanted to see Knievel “splatter,” a comic-strip word that Milius used over and over again.
The story was told in a series of flashbacks as the hypochondriac, madcap risk-taker prepared for his longest jump of all, nineteen cars, all American cars, “not a Volkswagen or Datsun in the row,” at the Ontario Motor Speedway. The ending, after Knievel successfully cleared the nineteen American cars, not a Volkswagen or Datsun in the row, showed him continuing to ride, flying through the air to the edge of the Grand Canyon, his biggest proposed jump of all, the ultimate challenge that he always promoted. Milius gave him these self-inflated words to say in closing:
Important people in this country... celebrities like myself, Elvis, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, we have a responsibility. There are millions of people that look at our lives and it gives theirs some meaning. People come out from their jobs, most of which are meaningless to them, and they watch me jump twenty cars, maybe get splattered. It means something to them. They jump right alongside of me... they take the bars in their hands and for one split second they’re all daredevils. I am the last gladiator in the new Rome. I go into the arena and compete against destruction and I win. And next week I go out there and do it again. At this time, civilization, being what it is and all, we have very little choice about our life. The only thing really left to us is a choice about our death. And mine will be glorious.
Fade to credits.
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