Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel
By Leigh Montville
Hardcover, 416 pages
List Price: $27.50
He walks onto the black-and-white screen a few minutes after midnight wearing a zebra-striped leisure suit. There is a quick thought that something might be wrong with the television this late at night. Static of some kind in the neighborhood. An electrical malfunction. No, the stripes only move when Evel Knievel moves. This is his outfit.
He is a one-man test pattern. The collar on the leisure suit is exaggerated, Edwardian, huge. The pants flare out at the end, bell-bottoms. His white leather kick-ass boots, which stick out from the edges of the bell-bottoms, would be suitable for either a well- dressed gang fight or an open- ended night in a Las Vegas cocktail lounge. The stripes on the leisure suit — back to the stripes — are random, run every which way, as if somebody had splashed white paint across a black background. The effect is dramatic. He is a work of modern art, certainly a piece of work, a cat on the prowl.
He is here to be on The Dick Cavett Show. He has dressed for the occasion.
"My next guest is an incredible character," Cavett tells the studio audience at the Elysee Theater on West Fifty- eighth Street in New York City.
He's a motorcycle daredevil driver. All his life he's been doing death-defying feats. Death has nearly defied him several times. His longest jump was fifty yards, a fifty-yard jump over the fountains of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. This jump did not go well. You may have read about it. Or seen some still photos of it. He has some film with him of what happened. He seems to spend his life, or what he has left of it, it sometimes seems to me, seeing what he can do to shorten it. Incredible things he does . . . Will you welcome the legendary Evel Knievel.
The Bob Rosengarden Orchestra plays "Daisy Bell" in the background, better known as "Bicycle Built for Two," a family standard written in 1892. The audience applauds. The "incredible character," the "motorcycle daredevil driver," walks across the stage with a slight limp in his left leisure-suited leg.
First impression: he is pool-hall handsome, good chin, prominent nose, steady eyes, sandy hair combed back, semi-serious sideburns. Self-confidence is not a problem. Second impression: if he came to the front door to pick up your daughter, left the engine running in the flashy car outside, he would make you nervous. Third impression: your daughter would be thrilled.
He shakes hands with the shorter Cavett, then turns and shakes hands with a middle-aged black man who wears glasses under a modest Afro. The middle-aged black man is jazz trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, already finished, the first guest of the night. Dizzy Gillespie! Dizzy is smoking a cigarette.
Everyone sits down.
"How are you?" Cavett asks from behind his desk, then immediately laughs at the absurdity of his own first question.
How are you? How are you? Evel Knievel? How do you ask Evel Knievel, "How are you?" Signifi cant stretches of his life have been spent in intensive care units. He has been in more hospitals than Dr. Christian Barnard or Marcus Welby, MD. He has more stitches in him than a Raggedy Ann doll, enough metal for a full Erector Set. How are you? His X-rays are his calling cards.
"Have you ever been hurt?" Cavett says, flummoxed.
"Yes, several times," Evel Knievel replies. "Several times."
The year is 1971. The month is August.
The interview has begun.
The Dick Cavett Show is the ABC entry in a three-network talk show race for the attention of the insomniacs of America at 11:30 p.m. Johnny Carson talks behind a desk at NBC. Merv Griffi n does the same at CBS. The Cavett show is third in the late-night ratings, but seen as the intellectual alternative. Cavett attracts the most interesting guests, the newsmakers, the provocative people of the day. The talkers actually talk rather than wink, blink, sing a song, tell a joke as they promote their next endeavor.
Groucho Marx previously sat in the brown leather chair at the side of this desk. Jimi Hendrix. Alfred Hitchcock. Kirk Douglas. Sonny and/ or Cher. Orson Welles. Satchel Paige. Bill Russell. Marlon Brando. Lester Maddox. John Kerry, the young Vietnam War resister. Jim Brown. Ingmar Bergman. Woody Allen. Joni Mitchell. Ann Landers. Truman Capote. Little Richard. Janis Joplin. Ralph Nader. Art Garfunkel. Dick Clark. Bette Davis. The list continues. John Lennon and Yoko Ono will be here within a month.
The thirty-two-year-old man in the zebra-striped leisure suit (who has been hurt several times) fits the chair as well as any of them. He is another emerging oversized figure of the moment. The movie about his life, starring George Hamilton, is in theaters across the country. He has played Madison Square Garden, the Astrodome, the Los Angeles Coliseum, a long list of arenas and stadiums and state fairs. He has talked, soared, flipped, bounced, skidded, and crashed his way into the public conversation.
Cavett: Gee, I've heard so much about you . . . do I detect a slight hesitation in your walk?
Knievel: When I got hurt in Las Vegas, I pushed my hips through my pelvis. That's what's known as a central protrusion fracture. And my left leg was pulled out. They put you in traction, pull you. That left hip did not come out. However, I've missed a jump like the Caesars Palace jump nine times in five years. And as a result of that, I've been operated on some twelve times . . .
Cavett: When they say you've broken every bone in your body, they actually don't mean every bone . . . in your ear and everywhere . . . but have you broken over a dozen?
Knievel: Oh, yes. I imagine all the major bones except my neck . . .
Cavett: All the major bones . . .
Knievel: Both legs. Both arms. My back twice last year.
Cavett: Where's the fun?
No one ever has done exactly what Evel Knievel does for a living. Trapeze artists and tightrope walkers and human cannonballs have made good money forever by challenging fate, by putting themselves in peril, Man versus the Grim Reaper, but he has brought the battle to modern dimensions, motorized it, wrapped it in a 1971 weird modern mix of sport and gasoline, showbiz and derring-do.
He drives his motorcycle at a high speed off a ramp, over assorted objects, mostly lines of cars, but also buses or trucks or the fountains at Caesars Palace, and he attempts to land on a ramp on the other side. The foundation of his success is failure. The more times he lands in an ambulance instead of on the specified ramp, the more times he is carted away for more reconstructive surgery, the more captivating his show becomes. There are no Harry Houdini tricks, no false bottoms or optical illusions. He makes the jump. Or doesn't. The times he doesn't make headlines.
Cavett: I know you're sick of being asked, "Why do you do it?" But why do you do it?
Knievel: That's a standard question everybody asks anyone, is why they do what they do. . .
Cavett: There are a lot of nice office jobs available . . .
Knievel: There are three mysteries to life: where we came from, why we do what we do, and where we're going to go. You don't know the answer to any of those questions, and I don't know the answer to any of them. So I never try to answer that. I do it because I'm Evel Knievel and there's something within me that makes me do it, and I don't try to figure it out, I just try to do it the best I can.
Cavett: Are you curious, would you ever like a psychiatrist to tell you why you . . .
Knievel: I've had a couple of them talk to me. They wound up talking to themselves.
Cavett: Do they come up with fancy theories, like you show your contempt for death by defying it and by tempting it and . . .
Knievel: They like to get me in a corner and look at me . . . I don't care what they want to talk about: the Vietnam situation, the financial situation in the United States of America, the . . . anything . . . the educational system. I talk to them about the stunt work and the life and death of it and how I feel about God, being religious or not, and they don't know what to think.
Cavett: They're more likely to say that you have some hidden loathing of yourself . . .
Knievel: A death wish maybe. I don't know. To me, life is a bore. Just doing nothing. I saw a guy working in that tunnel I came through here today. Why would a guy want to stand around in a tunnel for? Could you imagine wanting to work in a tunnel? He should get a motorcycle. Jump through the air. Breathe a little.
It is hard to say why Knievel has attracted America's attention. His notoriety is a curious fit into a curious time. He is a young Elvis dropped from a previous generation of pegged-pants, duck's-ass rebellion into the Age of Aquarius, more about trouble and excitement than peace and love. He even dresses like Elvis when he goes to work: white leather jumpsuits, red-white-and-blue stars and bars on the chest, flashy belt buckle with his initials on the front. He wears a cape. He carries a cane. Everything he does is counter to the counterculture. He is showing off, not dropping out, burning hydrocarbons instead of any kind of incense. There is not a mellow bone, broken or unbroken, in his body.
Maybe he fills a need. The Vietnam War is shit, has gone on forever. The politicians, led by Richard M. "Tricky Dick" Nixon in the White House, are shit. Authority of all kinds is shit. Society is shit. A dust of negativity has settled over everything familiar. Cynicism rules. Maybe there is a need for some muscle in the room, some noise, some unvarnished order. Move over, Maharishi. Get that sitar out of the way. Coming through. If the traditional heroes have disappeared, the soldiers and policemen and buttoned- down business leaders, then maybe a vacancy was opened on the pedestal. Maybe this self- invented hero with his self- invented name and his self- invented challenges has taken the spot. Someone was bound to get the job.
Excerpted from Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend by Leigh Montville. Copyright 2011 (c) by Leigh Montville. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.