When I was a kid, Evel Knievel was big business. He'd tried to the fountains at Caesar's Palace and failed (I never could figure that out), tried to jump the Snake River Canyon and failed (my most vivid memory was a line in the small print of the Monday sports section which read "Canyon Jumping: Snake River 1, Evel Knievel 0), tried to jump a tank of sharks in Chicago and failed. He was a regular on ABC's Wide World of Sports, and kept Frank Gifford busy reporting on his various attempts.
Yeah, his failures were spectacular, but so were his successes, none more so than the very idea that you could sell out sports stadiums around the world, filling them with people who were willing to pay to see someone risk breaking their neck. And it worked. He broke a lot of bones, but broke a lot of records as well.
Every once in a while if you surf around on television you'll come across a movie called Viva Knievel, in which Evel starred as himself - taking on drug dealers, trying to reconcile with his son, and leaping cars with his bike. In other words, undoubtedly an average day in the life of Evel Knievel. The supporting cast was incredible - Gene Kelly, Lauren Hutton, Red Buttons, Leslie Nielsen, Cameron Mitchell, and of course Frank Gifford. Some of them had seen their best days, some had never quite made it off the B list, but still - all of them supporting a guy who wasn't even a professional actor. . .
Although, truth be told, Evel Knievel was a great actor. He sold himself as the image of a heroic daredevil, a man with limitless courage, willing to risk it all for the sake of entertainment and the challenge. He sold it, and people bought it, and in truth they were probably buying the real thing. His son took up the family business and has done pretty well for himself, although the technology has certainly improved in the meantime. But he just doesn't have the pioneer spirit, if you will, that his dad had, a lone man on a lone bike, trying to do things others couldn't.
No, there was only one Evel Knievel, and I'm glad I got the chance to see him, even if it was only on TV. Say what you like - he took the chances, and in a way we all lived vicariously through him. He'd been in poor health for some time when he died today, at the age of 69.