I guess I was too young to really remember much about Evel Knievel’s many stunts back in the 1970s; my only real memory of him revolves around the toy motorcycle that everyone on my block owned except for me. The legendary daredevil passed away last week, and several comic creators paid tribute to him, including Dan Taylor:
Perhaps my very first true-to-life hero as a kid was the iconic Evel Knievel. I was maybe four years old when I first learned of the death defying daredevil. I remember watching his televised stunts on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. I had all of the Ideal bendable Evel Knievel action figures and wide-up cycles, vehicles, and accessories. My little brother and I were both Evel Knievel one year for Halloween. I made my parents (actually I think it may have been my dad losing to a match of Roshambo with my mom) to take me to see the movie Viva Knievel.
And that is why Evel was so big. Not because he was “truthful and honest” (for one thing, “Evel” was not, as you might have guessed, his real name — though it is a great one, with the same unforgettable rhythm as Englebert Humperdinck), but because he was just as phony, tacky, loud and bullheaded as America can be — and definitely was in the 1970s. Gas prices were through the roof, the economy sucked, the president had left office in scandal and most major cities were hellholes, but at least some high school dropout with a made-up name that rhymed could climb on a bike, zoom up a plywood ramp and risk killing himself to get on TV.
In other words, he might not have died for our sins, but he sure took one hell of a beating. Rest in peace, Evel. You earned it.
There’s something fascinating about professional daredevils. On the one hand, it seems extraordinarily stupid of someone to risk their lives to perform essentially meaningless stunts just for money and fame. But, on the other, there’s something compelling and strangely admirable about it, too.
Other stunt guys have beaten Evel’s records, including his son, Robbie. But none of them have ever managed to capture the imaginations of as many people – especially kids – as Evel Knievel. There was something bigger-than-life about him, something oddly heroic, that made kids like me look up to him, even when he failed, as he did at Snake River.