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Motorcycle Daredevil Evel Knievel, 69

Evel Knievel leaps over trucks at a Cleveland dragway during his prime in the 1970s. He was known as much for his crashes, in which he broke 35 bones, as for his stunts. His death was more quiet than his life. He died in bed.
Evel Knievel leaps over trucks at a Cleveland dragway during his prime in the 1970s. He was known as much for his crashes, in which he broke 35 bones, as for his stunts. His death was more quiet than his life. He died in bed. (Photos By Associated Press)

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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 1, 2007

In the end, neither the jumps nor the landings killed Evel Knievel. The last person you'd ever expect to die in his bed did, Nov. 30 at his condo in Clearwater, Fla., waiting for an ambulance to arrive.

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Mr. Knievel, the motorcycle daredevil who made a fortune on revving a motorcycle and lifting its front wheel off terra firma, broke more than 35 bones, battled diabetes, pulmonary fibrosis, hepatitis, multiple brain traumas, two strokes and a liver transplant in his 69 action-packed years. The family did not disclose which condition caused his death.

His spectacular leaps over double-decker buses, live sharks and western river canyons launched a thousand concussions among his young, imitative fans and the motherly warning: "Who do you think you are -- Evel Knievel?"

In his prime in the 1970s, clad in a star-spangled leather jumpsuit and backed by patriotic music, Mr. Knievel combined the daring of Harry Houdini with the bluster of P.T. Barnum. The simple entertainment of watching a man on a motorcycle jump outrageous obstacles distracted a nation fed up with the Vietnam War, Watergate and the fallen icons of federal law enforcement.

Mr. Knievel cashed in on the fame by licensing toys that grossed more than $300 million. For a short time, he was a ubiquitous product endorser, and his autographs were in great demand. At least three movies, two television specials, two books and a rock opera were written about him. Everyone had an opinion about him, which ranged from superhero, cartoon character and genre-breaking athlete to scam artist.

"They started out watching me bust my ass, and I became part of their lives. People wanted to associate with a winner, not a loser," he told the Associated Press last year. "No king or prince has lived a better life. You're looking at a guy who's really done it all."

Three days ago, he and rapper Kanye West announced that they had settled a federal lawsuit over the use of Mr. Knievel's trademarked image in a popular West music video.

His fame stemmed from his crashes as much as his successful jumps. His heavily promoted attempt in 1974 to jump Idaho's Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered vehicle (an idea born in a Montana bar) went wrong shortly after takeoff. A malfunctioning parachute blossomed, hit a 25-mph head wind and sent the rocket into a nosedive. Mr. Knievel bounced twice against the canyon wall and landed a few feet from the river. Fans felt shortchanged.

Seven months later, he successfully jumped 13 double-decker buses in London but crushed his pelvis on a failed landing. The next year, in 1976, while practicing a jump over a tank of live sharks at the Chicago Amphitheater, he crashed again. He broke both arms and had a concussion, which were not career-ending injuries. But for the first time, a bystander was seriously hurt and eventually lost an eye. His days of reckless abandon over, Mr. Knievel retired at 38.

Robert Craig Knievel was born Oct. 17, 1938, in the hardscrabble mining town of Butte, Mont. He was a high school athlete, specializing in pole vaulting and hockey. He set a school record for the most sit-ups and push-ups. He won the Northern Rocky Mountain Ski Association Class A men's ski jumping championship in 1957 and briefly played with the Charlotte Clippers of the Eastern Hockey League.

He dropped out of high school and was arrested in a petty crime. The judge gave him a choice of jail or the Army, and Mr. Knievel chose the military. When he got out, he founded a semipro hockey team, the Butte Bombers, and worked a variety of western blue-collar jobs: copper miner, saddle bronc rider, stock car driver and arm-wrestler. While running a hunting outfit, he decided that elk in Yellowstone National Park were being slaughtered, so he hitchhiked to Washington carrying a six-point rack of elk antlers and persuaded the Interior Department to capture and move the excess elk to wildlife refuges.

In another of his pickup jobs, he set a record while selling insurance for the Combined Insurance Co. of America, peddling 271 policies in a week. But he said 120 were sold to inmates of a nearby insane asylum.


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