Evel Knievel, the flamboyant motorcycle stuntman whose thrilling triumphs and spectacular failures enshrined him as America's consummate daredevil, died Friday in Clearwater, Fla. He was 69.
Knievel, who survived at least 38 broken bones, multiple concussions and countless abrasions acquired in daring jumps that ended in unplanned crashes, had been in failing health for years, including suffering from diabetes and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable condition that scarred his lungs.
Longtime friend and promoter Billy Rundle told the Associated Press on Friday that Knievel had difficulty breathing at his Clearwater condominium and died before an ambulance could get him to a hospital.
"It's been coming for years, but you just don't expect it," said Rundle. "Superman just doesn't die, right?"
Knievel died only three days after it was announced that he and rapper Kanye West had settled a federal lawsuit over the use of the legendary daredevil's trademarked name and likeness in a popular West music video.
Many of Knievel's successes were remarkable -- riding fast motorcycles up steeply pitched approach ramps and vaulting through the air over as many as 20 cars or 14 Greyhound buses before landing safely on descent ramps as far as 150 feet from the takeoff point.
But it was some of his defeats that won him his greatest fame -- slamming to the pavement in a Caesars Palace crash that left him in a coma for a month and falling into an Idaho gorge in a failed attempt to leap across the 1,700-foot-wide Snake River Canyon on a specially designed "skycycle."
Despite repeated accidents that cost him a total of more than three years in hospitals, Knievel once told the Wall Street Journal that there was only one incident that prompted him to drop a stunt from his repertoire.
He said he used to stand in front of a motorcycle speeding directly toward him, jumping spread-eagle at the last second as the cycle and its rider flashed beneath him.
In 1965, in Barstow, he didn't jump quite high enough. The motorcycle, going about 60 mph, hit him square in the groin.
"A highway patrolman covered my head with a blanket," Knievel said. "He thought I was dead. So did I."
Knievel was laid up for more than a month, but he came back for more. Glib, shrewd, arrogant and charming, he promoted himself and his dangerous pursuits so successfully that Evel Knievel emerged as a millionaire and a household name in the 1960s and '70s.
At a time when the nation was still struggling with the effects of the Vietnam War and Watergate, Knievel became an iconic American hero figure in his tight-fitting, red-white-and-blue jumpsuit. His image was used to market motorcycles, crash helmets, Halloween costumes and candy. Two movies and several television programs were based on his exploits.
"America was down on its ass when I came along, and it needed somebody who was truthful and honest, somebody who would spill blood and break bones and suffer brain concussions, someone who wasn't phony," he said without a trace of modesty.
Robert Craig Knievel was born to Ann Keaugh Knievel and her husband, car dealer Robert Edward Knievel, in Butte, Mont., on Oct. 17, 1938. His parents separated when he was 6, and he moved a few blocks to the home of his grandparents.
"When I was a kid, the main activity was to go up and throw rocks at the whores, bang on the doors and have the pimps chase us down the street," Knievel said in a New Yorker magazine interview. "When I was 8, I saw Joey Chitwood's Auto Daredevils at Clark Park, in Butte. A guy jumped a motorcycle over a car. That night, I stole a motorcycle from a neighbor."
By the time he entered high school, Knievel was well known to Butte police.
"I got into a lot of trouble," he told Esquire magazine. "Probably it all started with stealing hubcaps, and then a little more trouble all the time until, pretty soon, you're snatching purses and robbin' places and doing things you shouldn't be doing."
Along the way, he picked up his nickname, Evel. There were conflicting accounts, even by him, of how that happened. But the bottom line is that someone, perhaps he, started calling him "Evil," and he changed the I to an E to make the whole thing more distinctive.
The trim, 180-pound 6-footer was a good athlete. After dropping out of school in 1956, he won a regional ski-jumping competition, pole-vaulted more than 14 feet during a short stint in the Army, played briefly with the Charlotte (N.C.) Clippers of the Eastern Hockey League and started, managed and starred on his own semi-pro hockey team in Butte.
Knievel married his high school sweetheart, Linda Joan Bork, in 1959.
He was employed for a while as a hunting guide and an insurance salesman. And by his own, unsubstantiated accounts, he also worked successfully as a con man, an armed robber, a car thief and a safecracker.
"I robbed so many safes in Oregon that one of the newspapers said it looked like somebody was dropping bombs through the roofs," he told Esquire.