RACHEL MARTIN, host:
September 8, 1974 was a momentous day in American history. Sure, that was the day that Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, but did you know that was also the day Evel Knievel tried to jump across the Snake River Canyon on a jet-powered motorcycle?
Unidentified Man: Three, two, one. Whoa. It's looks like a good one.
MARTIN: Now, Knievel didn't make it across. His parachute popped open too early and sent him nose first down into the canyon.
Unidentified Man: Whoa. There's been a mistake. He looks like he's going into the canyon.
MARTIN: Evel Knievel walked away from the Snake River Canyon relatively unscathed. In fact, he survived all his daredevil stunts. When he died in 2007 at the age of 69, it was lung disease that killed him.
Sportswriter Leigh Montville has written a new biography. It's called "Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel, American Showman, Daredevil and Legend."
And Leigh Montville joins me now from the studios of WBUR in Boston. Welcome to the program, Leigh.
Mr. LEIGH MONTVILLE (Sportswriter, Biographer): Glad to be here.
MARTIN: So Evel Knievel is almost a semi-mythical figure by this point, kind of like Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan. But in the 1970s, he was everywhere, larger than life. Just describe to us, how big was he at that point?
Mr. MONTVILLE: It was a different time back then. Those of us who are old enough to remember it all, you know, mom and dad and the kids, they sat around the television and they had the three choices. And Evel kind of popped up in the middle of it all with this replay of himself crashing and bouncing and looking like a ragdoll trying to jump over the fountains at Caesar's Palace, and it was kind of riveting.
People just started paying attention to him and he became sort of a sequential reality show. You paid attention to his life, and that was before reality shows, it was before the X-Games, before all these extreme daredevil sports.
MARTIN: Let's rewind a little bit. You start the book in Butte, Montana. This is where Evel was born and raised. And I happen to be from that part of the world - Idaho - but still in the neighborhood of Montana, and I know Butte to be a pretty mellow Western American town. But you describe it very differently back then. Explain what Butte was.
Mr. MONTVILLE: No. It really never was a mild, mellow Western town. It was an immigrant town of young men who were drawn there by the richest copper mine in the world. And so the entertainments that developed were for those guys, which were wine, women and song all the time, and gambling thrown in on the side. It was as wild as you could get in the United States of America.
MARTIN: And this is where a young Robert Knievel was coming of age. And it was supposedly a Butte cop, a police officer, who ended up giving him his famous nickname. Can you tell us that story?
Mr. MONTVILLE: Robert Knievel, his parents split up when he was 2 years old. And so he as basically raised on the streets of Butte, and he became your basic bad actor. He robbed places and did all kinds of larcenous things and wound up in jail, not for long stretches of time but overnight. And he was in the jail one night and the story - it might be apocryphal - but there was another guy in Butte who was a true bad actor called William Knopfel(ph). Knopfel supposedly was in the jail as the same time as Knievel and the jailer said, hey, look, we've got an awful Knopfel and we've got an evil Knievel. What a place.
And the name never stuck in Butte, but when he got into the daredevil business, he was looking for something a little flashier than Bob and settled for Evel.
MARTIN: But interestingly enough, he doesn't want Evel to be spelled E-V-I-L because he thinks that sounds bad or dark. He had this bad rap, but there was part of him that wanted to not be the bad guy.
Mr. MONTVILLE: Oh, yeah. There was a large part of that - you know, I mean, he was setting himself up as sort of a Captain America. You know, it was the '60s and the '70s, and there was an absence of heroes in America. And he was glad to volunteer to be the hero.
MARTIN: So he obviously had a sense that there was an appetite for this publicly, this kind of drama. People wanted to watch someone risk their life in this way, and he thought: Sure. I can be that guy.
Mr. MONTVILLE: Oh, yeah. You know, we all love to sit at that dangerous intersection and wonder what's going to happen next. And that's what he sold. It's amazing. There was no real moral or ethical debate about what he was doing. It was like this is something that's going on, and let's all watch. Bring the kids and sit down and have a great day.
MARTIN: One of the threads that really runs through your book, and it happens again and again, is that people meet Evel Knievel, work with him, get robbed by him, and they decide this is just not a good person. I don't want to be associated with this guy, and they walk away.
Mr. MONTVILLE: A guy said to me once - he said, if Evel Knievel likes you, he would do anything for you. But if he doesn't like you, he'll do anything to you. And that little preposition difference was sort of a foundation of his life. And especially in business dealings, he was a tough guy. And he had a strange relationship with money. You know, he would steal it if he didn't have it. And if he had it, he would just blow it on anything, you know, fast cars...
Mr. MONTVILLE: Women. Oh, yeah. I mean, he boasted that he had relations with over 2,000 women, all the time being married and the father of three and then four.
MARTIN: What do you like about Evel Knievel? Is there anything redeeming about him?
Mr. MONTVILLE: The one thing that I think he appealed to people in was that I think all of us have a little bit of daredevil to us, you know? He was a guy that just - you run with that stick and then you'll poke your eye out. You know, he'd run with the stick all day long. And there's something freeing in seeing someone kind of unafraid of stuff, you know? I mean, I - that's what all these X-Games guys do now. And they flip around, Shaun White and Tony Hawk, and you go: Wow. How do they even do that? And he was the start of all that.
And following his dream, you know, he had that 15-year-old adolescent male dream of being rich and famous and having a wonderful time. But he was ruthless in going to achieve it, and it's a testament to how badly you can want something. And he wanted it badly enough that he would put his life on the line.
MARTIN: Leigh Montville is the author of "Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel, American Showman, Daredevil and Legend."
Leigh, thanks very much for being here.
Mr. MONTVILLE: Thank you very much.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.