CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Evel Knievel, the
red-white-and-blue-spangled motorcycle daredevil whose jumps over
crazy obstacles including Greyhound buses, live sharks and Idaho's
Snake River Canyon made him an international icon in the 1970s,
died Friday. He was 69.
Knievel's death was confirmed by his granddaughter, Krysten
Knievel. He had been in failing health for years, suffering from
diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable condition that
scarred his lungs.
Knievel had undergone a liver transplant in 1999 after nearly
dying of hepatitis C, likely contracted through a blood transfusion
after one of his bone-shattering spills. He also suffered two
strokes in recent years.
Longtime friend and promoter Billy Rundle said Knievel had
trouble breathing at his Clearwater condominium and died before an
ambulance could get him to a hospital.
"It's been coming for years, but you just don't expect it.
Superman just doesn't die, right?" Rundle said.
Immortalized in the Washington's Smithsonian Institution as "America's Legendary Daredevil," Knievel was best known for a
failed 1974 attempt to jump Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered
cycle and a spectacular crash at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. He
suffered nearly 40 broken bones before he retired in 1980.
"I think he lived 20 years longer than most people would have"
after so many injuries, said his son Kelly Knievel, 47. "I think
he willed himself into an extra five or six years."
Though Knievel dropped off the pop culture radar in the '80s,
the image of the high-flying motorcyclist clad in patriotic,
star-studded colors was never erased from public consciousness. He
always had fans and enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent
"I always wanted to live to about 70. I thought that'd be a good age," Knievel said in an interview with Vanity Fair for a story that will run in the magazine's February issue. "I have my tombstone already. A tombstone company in the East gave it to me when I jumped Snake Canyon. My plot is in Montana.
"All my life people have been waitin' around to watch me die. But I'm still here. I really think that there is a hereafter and this is just a testing ground. Years ago I was just helter-skelter. I defied death. And I'm still doing it -- only from a bed instead of a bike. There's just no quit in me. There's just no stopping me. I went through life big-bang-bada-boom-bada-boom. Now it's just bing, but I'm still Evel Knievel. I am. There's just nothing you could do to stop me."
His death came just two days after it was announced that he and
rapper Kanye West had settled a federal lawsuit over the use of
Knievel's trademarked image in a popular West music video.
Knievel made a good living selling his autographs and endorsing
products. Thousands came to Butte, Mont., every year as his legend
was celebrated during the "Evel Knievel Days" festival, which
"They started out watching me bust my ass, and I became part of
their lives," Knievel said. "People wanted to associate with a
winner, not a loser. They wanted to associate with someone who kept
trying to be a winner."
For the tall, thin daredevil, the limelight was always
comfortable, the gab glib. To Knievel, there were always mountains
to climb, feats to conquer.
"No king or prince has lived a better life," he said in a May
2006 interview with The Associated Press. "You're looking at a guy
who's really done it all. And there are things I wish I had done
better, not only for me but for the ones I loved."
He had a knack for outrageous yarns: "Made $60 million, spent
61. ... Lost $250,000 at blackjack once. ... Had $3 million in the
He began his daredevil career in 1965 when he formed a troupe
called Evel Knievel's Motorcycle Daredevils, a touring show in
which he performed stunts such as riding through fire walls,
jumping over live rattlesnakes and mountain lions and being towed
at 200 mph behind dragster race cars.
In 1966 he began touring alone, barnstorming the West and doing
everything from driving the trucks, erecting the ramps and
promoting the shows. In the beginning he charged $500 for a jump
over two cars parked between ramps.
He steadily increased the length of the jumps until, on New
Year's Day 1968, he was nearly killed when he jumped 151 feet
across the fountains in front of Caesar's Palace. He cleared the
fountains but the crash landing put him in the hospital in a coma
for a month.
His son, Robbie, successfully completed the same jump in April
In the years after the Caesar's crash, the fee for Evel's
performances increased to $1 million for his jump over 13 buses at
Wembley Stadium in London -- the crash landing broke his pelvis -- to
more than $6 million for the Sept. 8, 1974, attempt to clear the
Snake River Canyon in Idaho in a rocket-powered "Skycycle." The
money came from ticket sales, paid sponsors and ABC's "Wide World
The parachute malfunctioned and deployed after takeoff. Strong
winds blew the cycle into the canyon, landing him close to the
swirling river below.
On Oct. 25, 1975, he jumped 14 Greyhound buses at Kings Island
Knievel decided to retire after a jump in the winter of 1976 in
which he was again seriously injured. He suffered a concussion and
broke both arms in an attempt to jump a tank full of live sharks in
the Chicago Amphitheater. He continued to do smaller exhibitions
around the country with Robbie Knievel.
Many of his records have been broken by daredevil motorcyclist
Knievel also dabbled in movies and TV, starring as himself in "Viva Knievel" and with Lindsay Wagner in an episode of the 1980s
TV series "Bionic Woman." George Hamilton and Sam Elliott each
played Knievel in movies about his life.
Knievel toys accounted for more than $300 million in sales
for Ideal and other companies in the 1970s and '80s.
Born Robert Craig Knievel in the copper mining town of Butte on
Oct. 17, 1938, Knievel was raised by his grandparents. He traced
his career choice back to the time he saw Joey Chitwood's Auto
Daredevil Show at age 8.
"The phrase 'one of a kind' is often used, but it probably
applies best to Bobby Knievel," said former U.S. Rep. Pat
Williams, D-Mont., Knievel's cousin. "He was an amazing athlete. ...
He was sharp as a tack, one of the smartest people I've ever known
and finally, as the world knows, no one had more guts than Bobby.
He was simply unafraid of anything."
"He was no dummy," said high school classmate Sonny Holland,
the former Montana State football star and coach. "I'll never
forget a poem that he made up when we were seniors about his
friends and the people he hung out with. It was incredible.
Everybody was just astounded when he recited it in front of the
Outstanding in track and field, ski jumping and ice hockey at
Butte High School, Knievel went on to win the Northern Rocky
Mountain Ski Association Class A Men's ski jumping championship in
1957 and played with the Charlotte Clippers of the Eastern Hockey
League in 1959.
He also formed the Butte Bombers semiprofessional hockey team,
acting as owner, manager, coach and player.
Knievel also worked in the Montana copper mines, served in the
Army, ran his own hunting guide service, sold insurance and ran
Honda motorcycle dealerships. As a motorcycle dealer, he drummed up
business by offering $100 off the price of a motorcycle to
customers who could beat him at arm wrestling.
At various times and in different interviews, Knievel claimed to
have been a swindler, a card thief, a safe cracker, a holdup man.
Knievel married hometown girlfriend Linda Joan Bork in
1959. They separated in the early 1990s. They had four children:
Kelly, Robbie, Tracey and Alicia.
Robbie Knievel followed in his father's footsteps as a
daredevil, jumping a moving locomotive in a 200-foot, ramp-to-ramp
motorcycle stunt on live television in 2000. He also jumped a
200-foot-wide chasm of the Grand Canyon.
Knievel lived with his longtime partner, Krystal
Kennedy-Knievel, splitting his time between their Clearwater condo
and Butte. They married in 1999 and divorced a few years later but remained together. Knievel had 10 grandchildren and a
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.