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Evel Knievel

Evel Knievel always insisted reports suggesting every bone in his body had been broken during his career were an exaggeration. But, in the 20 years that his motorcycle stunts thrilled crowds across the US, he certainly damaged most of them.

Born in the town of Butte, Montana on 17 October 1938, Robert Craig Knievel Jnr was brought up by his grandparents after his parents divorced.

evelknievelAt the age of eight, he attended a motorcycle stunt show, which sowed the seeds for his future career.

He dropped out of school and went to work in the local copper mines, virtually the only source of employment in the area.

He was fired after he demolished some local power lines he had been using while trying to perform a stunt in an earthmoving machine.

With time on his hands, the young Robert frequently found himself on the wrong side of the law, and after his army service, Knievel tried a number of ways of working off his excess energy. He had become a successful pole vaulter while in the military and, when he left, he took up minor league ice hockey.

However, he was never quite good enough to make a professional player. He joined a motocross team but, as a sign of things to come, he crashed and broke a collarbone in 1962.

Following a spell as an insurance salesman Knievel started conducting motorcycle stunt displays. His first-ever performance, for which he sold all the tickets himself, saw him jump a motorcycle over a series of cages containing rattlesnakes and mountain lions.

Knievel soon discovered that to pull in the crowds he needed more performers and, with the aid of a local sponsor, he set up a team. The sponsor wanted him to adopt the name Evil Knievel but accepted Robert’s suggestions that the spelling should be Evel, as he did not want to be mistaken for a Hell’s Angel gang member.

The new stunt team performed in a series of shows in California, each more successful than the last. Knievel discovered that his increasingly high profile brought him all the things he really wanted: the money, the girls and, above all the fame.

It was the craving for the latter that drove him to attempt even more dangerous stunts. Now, as a solo act, he was jumping over rows of cars, adding more vehicles each time to persuade the crowds to return. A series of accidents resulted in long hospital stays, and even more publicity.

In 1968 he attempted a massive jump over a series of fountains outside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Unable to persuade TV companies to cover the stunt he hired his own cameraman to record the event. The resulting crash put him in a coma for 29 days and elicited massive bids for the film from the now-eager media.

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The staunchly right-wing Knievel became one of the most unlikely heroes of the 1970s, idolised both by the denizens of America’s myriad trailer parks and by hyperactive young boys who tried to jump trash cans and other obstacles with their bicycles, in emulation of the man.

After authorities vetoed his plan to leap across the Grand Canyon he set up an attempt on the narrower Snake River Canyon in Idaho – 4,781 feet wide and 600 feet deep.

Strapped into a 350 mph rocket-powered bike – the Sky-Cycle X2 – (pictured above left) Knievel plunged into the river below on 8 September 1974 after a parachute opened prematurely. This time he escaped with minor injuries. And a cool £2½ million . . .

British fans also got their chance to see Knievel in action in 1975 when he attempted to jump over 13 buses at Wembley Stadium (pictured below).

But the rear wheel clipped the last bus in the row and he somersaulted onto the ramp with the bike crashing down on top of him. A concussed Knievel, nursing more broken bones, announced his retirement over the stadium’s PA system.

Despite this he was back five months later, this time successfully clearing 14 buses in Ohio and setting a new world record. It was his last major appearance. Even in retirement, he could not keep out of the spotlight.

The publication of a book written by his former publicist Sheldon Saltman, which painted a less than rosy picture of his family life, angered Knievel. Despite having both arms in plaster he attacked Saltman with a baseball bat. He was jailed for six months.

By now his health was declining, a result of the battering his body had received over the years and his fondness for the bottle. He contracted hepatitis, probably as a result of the many operations he had undergone, and in 1999 he had a liver transplant.

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His fondness for flamboyant white leathers earned him the title “Elvis on a motorbike” and many saw him as one of the last great heroes.

As the working-class boy who gave up crime and made it big, he epitomised the mid-20th Century American dream.

Evel Knievel died in December 2007 at the age of 69. He had suffered ill-health – including diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis (an incurable lung condition) – for several years. He underwent a liver transplant, after nearly dying of hepatitis C, in 1999.