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The Man Who Fell to Earth

Bronx Banter Book Excerpt

Here is Part Two of Evel Knievel’s Snake River Canyon Jump from Leigh Montville’s new book, “Evel:The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend.”

(Click here for Part One)


Ten . . .

The time was 3:36 in the afternoon of September 8, 1974. The numbers came through the radio in the pilot helmet clamped tight over the man of the moment’s troubled head. No stopping now. He was going to travel over Snake River Canyon in this bucket of previously used bolts. Or not.

There was no turning back now. He was strapped into this compartment in the front end of this retread airplane fuel tank that had been salvaged from a government junkyard, one of those fuel tanks you see on the wingtips of fi ghter planes or private jets, a fuel tank that cost no more than $100 as scrap metal. He waited to be blasted into the sky. Maybe blasted to smithereens. Blasted in some manner or shape or form. That was for sure.

The fuel tank, which was supposed to be a rocket of course, had been altered, painted, given some kind of “jet propulsion” system, a set of surplus helicopter fi ns had been stuck on the side, and some corporate logos had been added to complete the red-white-and-blue American commercial package, but truth was truth: he was riding a homemade piece of shit. Three smart kids with an Encyclopedia Brittanica and a whole lot of spare time could have made this thing. Shot it off from their backyard.

Nine . . .

The sense of doom that had been an undigested worry in his stomach for the longest time had grown and grown in the past months, days, hours, and now, in the fi nal minutes and seconds, it filled his entire body, gushed out, covered his every word and action. He was a dead man. He had talked so much about the risk, the peril involved, while selling this event, this stunt, this whatever it was across the country, that he had convinced himself. He was a goner. He had created his own demise, built it from scratch, from an idea in his head to a public extravaganza televised around the world. “Man Kills Himself.” Come on, folks. Get your money up. Bring the wife and kids. “Right now I don’t think I’ve got better than a fifty-fifty chance of making it,” he had told Robert Boyle of Sports Illustrated. “It’s an awful feeling. I can’t sleep nights. I toss and turn, and all I can see is that big ugly hole in the ground grinning up at me like a death’s head. You know, I’ve always been concerned about kids—not just my own three, but all kids— what kind of an image I’m providing for them, what kind of an inspiration. I don’t know now. Maybe I’m leading them down a path to self-destruction. Our house in Butte is surrounded night and day by people wanting to take a look at me, to take something as a souvenir. And that damn little Robbie of mine, the 11-year-old, you know what he’s gone and done, He has got a big old sign out in front that says ‘SEE EVEL JR JUMP—25 CENTS.’ It’s not a good thing.”

Eight . . .

Push the button. That was all he had to do. Push the button and away he went. He had little control over what happened next. He had no steering wheel. He had no gears to shift. Nothing. He was so cramped he couldn’t put his arms out and attempt to fl y as a last gasp if trouble arose. The last- resort personal parachute hanging from his chest was nuisance rather than comfort. He had his hand on the lever for the drogue shoot, that was it. Wait ten seconds after liftoff and let it go. It would work without him if he passed out. He really was a passenger, not a driver. When he pushed that one button in front of him, the plug would be pulled on the seventy-seven- gallon boiler underneath, the water inside superheated in the past fourteen hours to 475 degrees, and 5,000 pounds of steam pressure would be released. The old airplane fuel tank . . . okay, the rocket . . .the rocket would be traveling at 200 miles per hour by the time it reached the end of the 108- foot ramp into the sky, traveling as fast as 400 miles per hour when it hit the height of its arc, 2,000 feet in the air. (Plus the 540- foot drop into the canyon. That meant he would be almost half a mile off the ground.) If all went well, the drogue parachute and then the big parachute would deploy from the back of the rocket, and he would slow down as he reached the other side. He would be traveling no more than fifteen miles per hour when a pointed shock absorber, sort of a pogo stick on the front of the rocket, would cushion the landing on the moonscape on the other side.

This, of course, was all hypothesis. No one ever had done this.


Fly Me To The Moon

Bronx Banter Book Excerpt

Here’s a smile for you. From Leigh Montville’s terrific new book, “Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel:American Showman, Daredevil and Legend.” I reviewed the book in SI last week and can’t recommend it enough.

“Most of us think of what we do as writing,” said William Nack. “But Leigh Montville sits down and says, ‘Why don’t I tell you all a story?’ ”

“My philosophy has always been that sports should be fun—a thing of joy,” Montville once told SI. “I don’t get up a whole lot of outrage; I’d rather laugh. What I really like to do is take something and stand it on its head, look at it that way, from a different perspective.”

Montville is one of our best pure storyteller’s and he’s perfectly suited to tell the tale tale of Evel Knievel. Here’s the first of two-part excerpt detailing Knievel’s most infamous stunt–Snake River Canyon.




The man of the moment made the moment a family affair. If this was going to be his last day on earth, then he would go out looking like a church deacon. Linda and the three kids would be there. His mother would be there from Reno. His father had been there all week. (“Bob always had to have a challenge,” his dad said at a press conference, sounding a bit like Ward Cleaver. “I tried to discourage him for years for fear of injury.”) His eighty-one-year-old grandmother, Emma, would be there. His half-sisters would be there from both sides of the family tree. His cousin, Father Jerry Sullivan, a Catholic priest from Carroll College in Helena, Montana, would give the benediction before liftoff.

His lawyers, accountants, bartenders, friends, and fellow reprobates from long ago had appeared already at the site. Bus trips had gone down from Butte. There had been a mass migration from the city, people driving the 364 miles in five, six, seven hours, depending on speed. The Butte High band had gone down to play the National Anthem. Everyone had assembled, former promoters, fans, everyone . . . Ray Gunn, his first assistant from Moses Lake in the early days, had returned for the show, friends again, signed up now to watch the jump from a helicopter and carry a bottle of Wild Turkey to the other side for an instant celebration.

The day would be part wake, part wedding reception, an all-time Humpty Dumpty experience. The broken pieces of Robert Craig Knievel’s life would be put together for this one time as they never had been put together, not once, in all of his years.

He would fly from Butte in the Lear in the morning with his family. Watcha would be at the controls and would buzz the crowd at the canyon, a dramatic touch. Watcha and everybody else would switch to a helicopter at the Twin Falls City-County Airport, arrive at the site to great applause, and the man of the moment would put on the flight suit in his trailer, and the show would begin.

Unless, of course, he canceled the show. “I have two demands that if you don’t meet I’ll cancel the show,”

Knievel said in an early morning phone call to Bob Arum from Butte. Arum prepared for the worst.

“First,” Knievel said, “I want to have all the press meet my helicopter when it lands. I want to make a statement.”

Arum said that would be impossible. Moving the entire press corps through the crowd could start a riot. (Another riot.) What he could do was bring Knievel to the press tent. That was possible. Knievel could make his statement that way. Same result.

Knievel agreed. “Second,” he said. “I want you to bring your two sons to my trailer before the jump. I want to say some words to them before the jump because people are going to blame you for my death and I want them to know it was my idea. And I want them to sit with my family at the jump.”

“Done,” Arum said, figuring that the two boys, ages eleven and nine, would do what he told them. “I’ll get them there.”

Knievel seemed sentimental in everything he did that morning. He seemed to be turning off the lights, locking all the doors. Just in case. He had a picture of the canyon, just the canyon, no Skycycle or ramp, that he secretly signed, “Linda, I love you,” across the blue sky. He told Kelly, his oldest son, last thing before everybody left Butte for the jump, to pretend to go back into the house for his shaving kit and hang the picture on the bedroom wall. He wanted that waiting for his wife if somehow the results turned out badly.

Even when he arrived at the site—plane flight, helicopter, there—he was sentimental. Even when he talked to the press.

“When I weighed last night all the good things and the bad things that were said, it came out a million to three for the good,” he told the press after he landed in Watcha’s helicopter. “So I hope all your landings in life are happy ones—and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”


Million Dollar Movie


It was the 1970s, and the bewildered youth of America needed a hero. Instead, we got Evel Knievel. Knievel, the self-proclaimed world’s greatest daredevil, roared out of Butte, Montana sometime in the 1960s with a unique flair for self-promotion, a collection of red, white and blue capes and a willingness to put himself in harm’s way by jumping over things on a motorcycle. Cars, Greyhound buses, a shark tank – Knievel revved up his motorcycle and flew over them. Sometimes he landed safely, sometimes he’d crash or careen out of control, his body thrown across the tarmac like an unwanted rag doll, leaving Wide World Of Sports announcers to ask each other “Will this be Evel’s final jump?”

In any era, a self-made celebrity like Knievel is bound to wind up on the silver screen. Knievel’s story was told in an eponymously titled 1971 film starring George Hamilton as Knievel, who famously described himself as “the last gladiator.” However, after his infamous Snake River Canyon jump, his line of toy cycles and dolls and another 5 years of jumps and crashes, the time was right to try to make a movie star out of Evel himself.

Thus, in 1977, movie audiences around the world were treated to Viva Knievel!, starring Evel Knievel as…Evel Knievel.  Could he act? Would it matter?  Not to kids like me, who could barely put down our Stunt Cycles or put away our Tour Vans long enough to sit through one of the greatest bad movies of all time.

As a film, Viva Knievel! is much like watching one of Knievel’s crashes. It’s an unholy mess, and yet we can’t look away, and it contains one of the strangest casts in movie history. Gordon Douglas directed the film, and one wonders if he got the job due to his rapport with Frank Sinatra. Douglas directed Sinatra in five films in the 1960s and was known as one of the few directors who could control Sinatra or at least get along with him. Warner Brothers may have felt he’d be the man to ride rein on Knievel.  The problem with that thinking is that Frank Sinatra may have been difficult, but he could actually act and pretty damned well when he wanted to.

The film opens with Knievel sneaking into an orphanage at night to bring children the uplifting gift of Evel Knievel action figures. One child is so moved by Knievel’s presence, he throws away his crutches and tells Knievel he’s the reason he can walk again. That’s right folks – Knievel might have inspired your children to shatter their own bones emulating his crazy stunts, but don’t worry – his inspiration will have them out of their hospital beds in no time at all.

Soon enough, Knievel’s setting up his next jump with his alcoholic mechanic sidekick Will, played by Gene Kelly. GENE KELLY? Yes, that Gene Kelly. The cinematic icon, beloved the world over, now inexplicably reduced to playing Evel Knievel’s second banana. (What’s worse is that Kelly is genuinely bad in the role.) We also meet Evel’s unscrupulous promoter, played by Red Buttons. Apparently Warner Brothers was under the impression that the best way to make Knievel a movie star was to surround him with people who were really current and hip in 1977, you know, like Red Buttons and Gene Kelly.  We’re treated to a great scene of Kelly threatening Buttons because he feels Evel’s last jump hadn’t been safe enough.

“What’s the matter with you? Evel is my pal too!” is Buttons’ meek response.


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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver