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Knievel Embodied the American Dream
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Knievel Embodied the American Dream

Remembrances

Knievel Embodied the American Dream

Knievel Embodied the American Dream
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The great American motorcycle daredevil, Evel Knievel, died Friday. TV and movie director Joshua Seftel remembers Knievel as a true American "visionary" who jumped his way to fame and fortune: He made money by taking risks.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

About 10 years ago, movie and TV director Joshua Seftel worked for Bryant Gumble at CBS. Gumble had the idea to interview Evel Knievel, the motorcycle daredevil who died Friday. Back then, Knievel was suffering from hepatitis C, and Josh immediately knew he had a winning story.

Mr. JOSHUA SEFTEL (TV and Movie Director): Two motorcycles would race down a sunbathed highway toward the edge of the Snake River Canyon, the site of Knievel's great failed jump to the beat of Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild."

The roaring of the engines would grow impossibly loud as the bikes raced toward the cliff. And at the last possible moment, the figures would skid to a stop. The first man would slowly lift his dusty helmet. It's Bryant Gumble.

There would be no need for the second man to reveal his identity. His blazing white Captain America jumpsuit, with red and blue stars across the chest gives him away. Standing on the precipice, Bryant might even take a pebble and casually toss it into the bottomless canyon. Then he would turn to Evel and say, you spent your entire life thumbing your nose at death. Evel would nod silently.

Looking back on it all, Evel, was it worth it? Perfect. I picked up the phone and dialed. A frail man just awakened from a midday nap answered. This will be your chance to talk about hepatitis C and help people, I told Knievel. He explained that's exactly what he wanted to do. He needed a new liver, and he joke that this was his latest stunt, something his doctor called Snake Liver Canyon. But like all his other death-defying stunts, Knievel wanted to be paid.

When I explained that network news doesn't pay for interviews, Knievel went from lighthearted to angry. He referred me to his lawyer Fred and then he hung up on me. Fred quickly sold me three VHS tapes of Evel's greatest stunts for 80 bucks. When I told Fred that we don't pay for interviews, he blurted, I don't give a god damn about your network rules, and he hung up on me too.

The next day, I received the videos. I invited some friends over to watch. And within minutes, we were cheering and laughing. Almost every time, Knievel would crash - skidding and tumbling like a man with no bones. He was an Elvis who couldn't sing; a stuntman without a movie. But none of that mattered because Evel Knievel was a visionary.

This man, in a Captain American costume, created the first and perhaps greatest reality show of all time. He embodied the American dream - getting paid to take risks and getting famous along the way. In less than 10 years, he made $60 million in exchange for 40 broken bones, multiple concussions and a coma.

The next day, Fred called to confirm that Evel would not be doing the interview. I shouldn't have been surprised. This was a man who would do just about anything. But Evel Knievel never did anything for free.

HANSEN: Director Joshua Seftel. His feature film "War, Inc." will open in theaters this spring. Evel Knievel eventually got his liver transplant but had other medical problems after that. His family didn't release the exact cause of death.

This is NPR News.

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