For kids growing up in the 1970s, Evel Knievel was a superhero. This had less to do with his real-life motorcycle jumps of double-decker buses, blustery canyons and casino fountains (which frequently ended in bone-breaking botch jobs and bailouts) than it did with mass-marketed merchandise. Thanks to action figures and comic books, Knievel existed in a mythic realm alongside the likes of Ghost Rider and Muhammad Ali. Best of all the Evel toys was a stunt cycle, which, thanks to its mega power launcher (basically a plastic hand crank), once cleared the slimy creek near our home — our housing development’s equivalent of the Grand Canyon.
Knievel’s inherent ridiculousness — later gently spoofed by the TV show The Greatest American Hero and lampooned with great acerbity by Super Dave Osborne — was for us kids a nonissue. As absurd as it might seem, the news of Knievel’s passing last week at age 69 proved confirmation of something I’d only recently come to realize: He was mortal.
The realization began this past spring, when Rolling Stone asked me to contribute to an upcoming extreme-sports-themed issue. I wasn’t particularly interested. Well, the editor countered, how about doing a story on Evel Knievel? “You bet!” I shouted.
Rolling Stone didn’t know how to get in touch with Knievel, so left it to me to track him down. It wasn’t as easy as you’d think. I tried every avenue, phoning lawyers who had previously represented him, Vegas casinos where he’d once performed, etc., but no one knew how to reach him. After an extensive Internet search, I found an online store selling star-spangled replica jumpsuits of the red white & blue outfits Knievel made famous. I e-mailed its customer-service department that I was trying to track down Mr. Knievel for an interview and if they could be of any assistance I’d be much obliged.
About an hour later my phone rang. I picked it up and heard a gravelly voice: “Peter, it’s Evel Knievel.” As my brain flashed on an image of Knievel sitting in a garage full of cheap old jumpsuits he’d been trying to sell since the ’70s, I began to laugh. “What’s so funny?” he wanted to know.
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“Nothing, Mr. Knievel,” I said, then explained that the magazine wanted me to interview him about his role as the godfather of extreme sports.
From the other end of the phone came a sigh: “Peter, I don’t want or need Rolling Stone to do a story on me after all these years. In 1974 Rolling Stone sent a shit named Joe Eszterhas to write a story about me when I attempted to make my Snake River Canyon jump. And when the story came out, the title of the story was ‘King of the Goons.’ It hurt, it hurt very much, and I know a thing or two about pain. Now, I’m not judging your insides by the cover of your magazine. I’m sure you’re a decent human being. And God knows we all make mistakes. [Pause.] I made some of my biggest live on national television. But Rolling Stone made a mistake when they ran that story.”
I was tempted to tell him that when I was a kid I was endlessly entertained by one of those rad Evel Knievel stunt cycle toys. Instead I apologized, said I understood, and thanked him for calling me back. Then I went and dug up a copy of the issue from November ’74 with the “King of the Goons” story. It was a scabrous, overindulgent, pseudogonzo hatchet job by Eszterhas — exactly what you’d expect from the mind that gave us Showgirls, basically. One part of the story stuck out though, describing how former heavyweight champ Joe Louis had been flown into Snake River Canyon purportedly as a guest of honor but really just for a photo op with Knievel. When he figured out he’d been used, Eszterhas tells us, Louis leaned up against the only tree in the desert, fuming and stuffing cigarettes into his mouth. I wondered if Eszterhas’ beef with Knievel was that he’d found someone more opportunistic and megalomaniacal than himself.
I phoned Knievel a few more times and left messages to see if he would do an interview in which he could vent his feelings about “King of the Goons.” I never heard back from him.