In a decade largely absent of heroes, Evel Knievel was a real-life superhero.
Knievel, the caped 1970s showman who, thanks to a trusty chopper and sheer abandon, jumped land and water masses with a single bound (and sometimes a few bounces), and landed among the Watergate era's pop-culture elite, died Friday, the Associated Press reported.
Knievel was 69—not ancient, but not bad for a man who bragged about making the Guinness Book of World Records on the strength, as it were, of 35 broken bones.
"Every time I make a jump, I thank God when it comes down, no matter how far I went," Knievel told ABC Sports in 1973.
From his roots as a high-school ski jumper in his native Montana to his rise on Wide World of Sports, the premiere TV sports showcase of its day, Robert Craig Knievel went a very long way.
If one could judge the folk heroes of the 1970s by walking a toy aisle, one would conclude that Knievel ranked among the giants: Muhammad Ali, the Six Million Dollar Man and Fonzie.
So big was the Knievel toy line—by the daredevil's own estimate it sold more than $300 million worth of action figures, model kits, Super Jet Cycles, and more—that the New York Times once reported its namesake superstar reputedly made as much money from its royalties as he did from his motorcycle stunts.
And, rest assured, Knievel made a lot of money from his motorcycle stunts: $1 million to clear 13 double-decker buses at London's Wembley Stadium in 1975; $6 million to rocket across Idaho's Snake River Canyon in a self-styled "Skycycle."
Knievel didn't always land cleanly--in London, he broke his pelvis; at Snake River Canyon, he was victimized by premature parachute ejaculation. Truth was, landing cleanly wasn't the point. The spectacle was.
Clad in a white-spangled jumpsuit, Knievel would enter an arena with a cape and walking stick. When the Rocky routine was over, the superhero donned his cowl—a matching white-spangled helmet—and went up, up and away. The show was so good that, according to Knievel's official biography, a 1975 leap over 14 buses at Ohio's Kings Island amusement park captivated more than half of all TV viewers that day.
The ride began on New Year's Day 1968 when Knievel, three years into his career as a professional death-defier, came into prominence by jumping the fountains at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas—and landing in a coma for 30 days.
By 1974, his Montana-man-made-good story was fodder for a Hollywood movie, Evel Knievel, starring George Hamilton.
Since nobody could really be Knievel but Knievel, he played a fictionalized version of himself in the action movie, Viva Knievel!
The film, released in 1977, came at the beginning of the end of Knievel's headliner run.
A year earlier, he'd retired from big-time jumping after a big-time bad landing in Chicago for the CBS special, Evel Knievel's Death Defiers, which aired in January 1977. (The stunt, its aftermath was so gruesome that even a cameraman lost an eye, was not entirely for naught. Knievel's jump involved sharks, which, as argued by blogger Steve Mandich, inspired Fonzie's shark jump later that same year on Happy Days, which inspired the Website and phrase-coiner, Jump the Shark.)
Adding to Knievel's woes in 1977 was a six-month jail sentence incurred when the motorcycle enthusiast took up baseball...on the person of an author who'd written a book about him. The bad publicity, the New York Times said, had a "devastating impact" on Knievel toy sales, if not the superhero image.
Born Oct. 17, 1938, in Butte, Montana, Knievel continued to fling himself through the air until 1980, sometimes working the same spotlight along with son Robbie, a daredevil—and action figure—in his own right. After, it was only a matter of time before he was celebrated anew by the former children of the 1970s.
In the late 1990s, Dan Reines edited an online Knievel advice column, "Ask Evel," for Tripod.com. The articles were aimed at twentysomethings—Knievel's cultural offspring.
"We used to say he was Johnny Cash on a motorcycle," Reines said Friday. "This guy was this cool icon, and every time we'd say we had Evel writing for us, people would be like, oh, I used to have all his toys in the '70s..."
In 2004, Knievel's life story was retold in the TV-movie, Evel Knievel, starring CSI's George Eads. And in a 2006 Kanye West video for "Touch the Sky," the rapper suited up in a "Evel Kanyevel" jumpsuit. (Knievel sued over the video, alleging it infringed on his trademark. It was just this past Tuesday that a settlement was confirmed, and a make-nice photo between Knievel and West was released.)
While the retro movement was kind to Knievel, time wasn't.
In a 2006 interview with the A.P., Knievel the invincible was revealed to be a prematurely aged 67-year-old who sucked down painkillers, and didn't go anywhere without an oxygen tank, the latter accessory the result of pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic, incurable condition that scars the lungs, and plagued him to the end.
Knievel's medical chart came complete with diabetes, a stroke and a liver transplant. The transplant, in 1999, occurred after Knievel's own liver was ravaged by hepatitis C. It was believed Knievel contracted the devastating infection during surgery for one of his stunt injuries.
In death as in life, landings were secondary to the spectacle, to the experience.
"No king or prince has lived a better life," Knievel told the wire service. "You're looking at a guy who's really done it all."
In a message on his Website dated Nov. 1, Knievel wrote of doing even more.
"For every adversity there is an equivalent seed of benefit," he wrote. "You only have to look for it. Chase your dreams and get up if you fail."