At rest, which is a physically enforced condition for him, he is
a startling sight. Diamonds of odd provenance ("Redd Foxx, paid
$50,000 for them," he says) catch the casino light, and his half
leer gleams wickedly. There's a crookedness to him that you
can't quite put your finger on. Over the years he has broken 35
bones, he says ("Not every bone in my body, that's a common
misconception"), and everything about him seems angular, his
joints not in concert. But here he seems comfortable, as if his
skeleton had been restructured for just this purpose: His body
folds perfectly into the Cloud Nine bar in the Maxim Hotel in
"I'm the biggest gambler in town," he says, by way of greeting.
In Las Vegas? "Won $26,000 last week; bet the Packers at the
half. Lost $6,700 on Bruce Seldon. Believe that? Had dinner with
him two nights before the Tyson fight, and he's telling me how
he's going to win this for his mother, how he's a Christian.
Forget the money, I believed in the kid. But I like Miami this
week, and I'm betting Notre Dame big the first half."
Evel Knievel sips a light beer. He's among old friends at the
Maxim, the casino hotel where he usually stays. He has come to
Las Vegas for a few days--had to drive a Pontiac Firebird onto a
stage at a car show and went to the inaugural Indy race at
Vegas's new speedway--but as usual when he visits Vegas, he will
end up spending weeks, maybe a month, folded up in his living
room, the Cloud Nine. The air-conditioned days go by, and Evel,
insulated from time as we know it, makes the best of them.
"Woody," he says to the bartender, "did I ever bet sports here?"
It is a strange ether that Evel floats in, but everyone's
retirement is different, right? His is wildly intoxicating,
exotic beyond anything the financial magazines promise. A
jeweler named Sammy, who seems to be wearing his entire
inventory, shows up to consult on earrings for Evel's
girlfriend, Krystal Kennedy. Evel wants them to be two karats
each, but Sammy, who looks like the last man on earth to argue
for modesty, says one karat would be plenty. Evel shrugs. Less
is more? Hardly. A shoeshine man appears at the bar. "The
lizards look good, and the alligators look good," Evel says,
"but I got six pair of shoes for you tomorrow." Evel looks into
the shoeshine man's eyes. "You need anything, you O.K.?" The man
shrugs, and Evel withdraws a rubber-banded wad of money from his
pocket and peels off $30.
Woody produces another light beer, and the day turns to night.
Evel says his doctors disagree on whether he has liver disease,
but even he admits that he drinks too much. Just beer, though.
"Had my last drink of Wild Turkey in 1989," he says, "the day
after Robbie jumped Caesars." Was it his last drink because his
son cleared the same 50-yard jump over the Caesars Palace
fountains that Evel attempted on New Year's Eve of '67? (Evel
came up short and ended up in a coma for 29 days.) "No, I'd just
had enough," he says. The beer he drinks is often even lighter
than it's meant to be. Krystal, a former member of the Florida
State golf team and a feisty traveling companion, tops his glass
with mineral water whenever he's not looking. Evel sips it and
calls to Woody in mock alarm, "Is this beer flat?"
"Those were a bad 10 years, till 1990," Evel says, beginning one
of those outrageous yarns he loves to spin. "Tough time. Made
$60 million, spent 61. I never cared about money, though. Lost
$250,000 at blackjack once." That hurt? "Nah, had three million
in the bank at the time."
Things Evel bought with his $60 million: "I had a 124-foot ship,
an 87-foot yacht, a helicopter, a Learjet. I had trotters,
Tennessee walkers, Appaloosas, quarter-horses and thoroughbreds.
I had 14 motorcycles at one time. Cars, I don't know--five
Rolls-Royces, terrible cars. Have a $280,000 Aston now. Had a
million-dollar home on 8.9 acres in Butte." Other stuff too,
like that diamond-encrusted walking stick filled with Wild
Turkey. Rocket bikes and sky cycles. Who knows what all he bought?
Krystal appears, and, to absolutely no fanfare, Evel hands her
an unmounted diamond he says is 6.5 karats. She met him at a
golf tournament in Florida five years ago. He's going on 58,
she's 26. They're quite a pair.
"A little big," she says, sizing up the stone alongside the one
on the ring she's wearing.
"But do you love me?" he says.
"I'll think about it," she says and heads for the blackjack
"A great little golfer," Evel says admiringly, "and a good
little gambler, too." It reminds him. "I once won $50,000 in
golf, beat this guy one up. Eagled the 1st hole. You do know I'm
the biggest gambler in town, don't you?" In Las Vegas? "Oh,
yes," he says, fierce all of a sudden. "I bet my life here."
Robert Craig Knievel hasn't made a motorcycle jump since 1980,
but he must have made hundreds of them over his 14-year career,
in venues ranging from civic centers and county fairgrounds to
Idaho's Snake River Canyon, where he made his famous abortive
attempt to rocket three quarters of a mile, from one side to the
other, in 1974. All those nights when he left his wife, Linda,
and three kids in the hotel room--dressed in his leathers, with
his helmet tucked under his arm, wondering if he'd come back and
see them again--the terrible feeling in his stomach never
yielded to experience. "The feeling just got worse, every time,"
he says. It was surprising. "Got so I couldn't pull the trigger."
He got out in time, sort of. He never cheated on his stunts, and
going by his X-rays, his performances were less than surefire.
Beginning with one of his first jumps--in 1966, when he failed
to clear a box of rattlesnakes, and the critters slithered clear
of their splintered crate--he established the national threshold
of danger, and he raised the bar every time, or at least added
another bus. The thrills were genuine. He figures he spent 3 1/2
years in hospitals in the service of his daredevilry.
He was certainly paid well enough--as much for his promotional
genius as for his performances. As for the failed Snake River
Canyon leap, it hardly matters whether he made $6.5 million, as
he says, or $250,000, as others claim. More to the point was the
fame that he fashioned from the stunt. It became apparent that
his jumps (whether made over 19 cars at a backcountry track or
over 13 Greyhound buses on Wide World of Sports) were not meant
to get him from here to there, but to support the growing
industry that was Evel Knievel. In the 1970s his action figures
helped resuscitate a flagging toy industry. His Evel Knievel
bikes, made by AMF, were everywhere. His name was on pinball
machines, toothbrushes, blankets, curtains and radios. In your
basement you may have an Evel Knievel lunch box.
Of course that money and Linda are long gone. By the time he
straightened himself out in 1990, following a spree of spending
and drinking that was every bit as outlandish as his stunts, all
that remained was his fame, the residue of Evel Knievel quilts
and wristwatches. Luckily for him, though, he lived into this
ridiculous era in which fame is highly bankable.
Celebrities of Evel's vintage are suddenly attractive to
sponsors, card-show organizers, bankers and car dealers. A guy
like Evel, such an icon to a certain generation that he is seen
as a kind of Elvis, is the beneficiary of a windfall for no good
reason except that he survived, and Elvis didn't.
"I'm not bragging," he says, "but I'll make more money in the
next 10 years than in my whole career." He thinks he represents
seven or eight companies, outfits such as Choice Hotels and
Little Caesar's Pizza. He is vague, he says, because he doesn't
care that much anymore. The money just comes in. He claims he
has gotten as much as $10,000 a week from sales of a pain-relief
gizmo called the Stimulator, which he endorses and sells on his
Happy Landings Web site. He'd prefer to have no involvement in
his business affairs beyond the actual appearance work and the
endorsement of the checks. For two years one of his Snake River
Canyon sky cycles was parked inside the Vegas Hard Rock Cafe, at
a handsome sum per annum. A movie about him (the fifth by his
count) and a planned Evel Knievel theme restaurant in Las Vegas
(to be called the Daredevil Cafe) will proceed without any worry
on his part--though he expects residuals.
So, sallying forth from his fairway home in Clearwater, Fla., he
golfs--he says he has a 12 handicap--with Krystal and his
buddies five days a week; he shops; and he bets on sporting
events. Because three or four months are a long home stand for
him, he is less likely to be in Clearwater than on the road,
carving a circuitous seasonal path through the U.S.: Atlanta;
St. Louis; Butte, Mont. (where his 102-year-old grandmother, the
woman who raised him, still barks at her "Bobby"); Coeur
d'Alene, Idaho (where he has a home); Deer Valley, Utah; San
Francisco; Vegas. He drives all the time; this trip to Vegas was
in a custom-painted Chevy Tahoe with a TV antenna. His Web site
(www.evelknievel.com) updates his itinerary: "Evel is on
vacation in the Midwest and near the West Coast, playing golf
and relaxing in the mild warm weather."
"I have a wonderful life," he says. A lucky life? "I wouldn't
say that. I broke enough damn bones and spilled enough damn
blood, I wouldn't call it lucky." The rebuke is mild, though. A
light beer or so later he says, "Luck may have had something to
do with it." He's alive, isn't he?
At 11 p.m. Evel, who has been camped out at the Cloud Nine for a
couple of hours since dinner, suddenly decides it's important to
get to Caesars Palace and bet college football. Krystal and her
chips are gathered from Maxim's casino, a stack of crisp
hundreds is withdrawn from a safety box, and Evel's entourage
piles into a limo for the drive--a long block. Evel folds and
unfolds his betting list, a scrawl of games he likes, 11 on
Saturday alone. "I like Miami," he says. Krystal approves. "Won
$100,000 in football last year," he says.
But the book at Caesars is closed. Krystal goes off to a
blackjack table, and Evel finds another bar, fits into it and
orders a Clamato. Suddenly he is surrounded, as he was earlier
in the evening, by well-wishers, autograph seekers, older women
who remind him, "You used to be so-o-o handsome." Evel enjoys
this, not only because it appeals to his considerable ego but
also because he just likes being with people. Some cowpokes, ZZ
Top look-alikes in Vegas for a miners' convention, approach him,
and everybody compares life underground. "Worked a mile below,"
Evel says, "mining copper for Anaconda." Everyone nods.
This is not a bad place for Evel to be. The cocktail waitresses,
not a few of whom remember him from that 1967 jump at Caesars,
are all over him. "If you want to kiss Evel," says one of the
old-time girls, "you better do it now, while Krystal's gone."
Evel laughs nervously, as if there is more history here than he
would like to reveal. And they do kiss him. "They were awfully
nice to me back then," Evel says, wiping lipstick from his cheek.
It is interesting that Caesars inspires no dread in him. Sailing
across those fountains out front, then losing control and
clattering across the asphalt for 200 feet, coming to rest at
actress Linda Evans's feet ("She got pictures," he says) in one
of his most horrific accidents--it all has no grip on him
whatsoever. "The one thing I remember," he says, glancing out
from the bar to the casino floor, "was coming downstairs for the
jump. I'd had my good-luck shot of Wild Turkey, like always,
walking past the tables and stopping at roulette and betting
$100 on red. It was black. I thought nothing of it, just put my
helmet under my arm and kept walking."
He was luckier in 1989, when he got Robbie to use a safety
landing ramp on his avenging jump at Caesars. "He didn't want to
do it," Evel says. "Almost had to fistfight him. But if he
hadn't used it"--he demonstrates with cocktail napkins--"he'd
have been decapitated. I don't get any credit for that."
Worse, Evel and Robbie, who makes his living the way his father
used to, have hardly spoken since then, for reasons Evel will
not discuss. "Breaks your heart when your son doesn't love you,"
Evel says, "but he's without doubt the best motorcycle performer
All in the past. Evel holds no grudge against Caesars, against
anybody. He only wishes the sports book were open now. "Let's
go," he says suddenly. He scoops up Krystal from the blackjack
table, but she's furious because, unbeknownst to Evel, she was
embarrassed by all the attention he got earlier that night from
women. When Evel tries to soothe her by giving her $500 to bet
on red at the roulette table, she stalks off, leaving him
confused and, of course, embarrassed. They had a slightly more
unpleasant set-to in 1994, when police arrested Evel on
suspicion of beating Krystal at a motel in Sunnyvale, Calif. But
the case disappeared overnight when she refused to press
charges, saying only that they'd had "an argument and a tussle."
Regardless of what happened then, this night's incident won't
develop quite as famously. In fact, Evel is more rueful than
anything else--a beleaguered member of the ever-dim male gender.
"Next time," he says, pointing to a companion, "we're going to
do this in your town, with your girlfriend." He calls for the
limo and rides back to the Maxim, fingering his bet sheet.
The following morning he bets the Miami game twice, $1,000 per,
and plans to bet a host of other games smaller and Notre Dame
huge the first half. He says he is on a kind of a roll. A Blue
Angels pilot came up to him and told him that one of his public
service announcements years back--wear a helmet, don't do drugs,
who knows--turned his life around. This happens all the time:
Evel's lifetime of risk is rewarded in ways he never dreamed of.
Bets made, tickets cashed.
Didn't he say he was the biggest gambler in town? He's the
biggest and the best. Miami kills Rutgers that night, just kills
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Nowadays Knievel wheels and deals as a spokesman for everything from hotels to pizza. [Evel Knievel looking through spokes of motorcycle wheel]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: HEINZ KLUETMEIER (2) Master of disaster: Knievel wasn't hurt when his Snake River Canyon jump fizzled in '74 (left), but more than six years earlier he had ended up in a coma after the Caesars leap. [Evel Knievel's rocket taking off over Snake River Canyon; Evel Knievel's rocket falling with open parachute]
B/W PHOTO: EDGAR HOLCOMB [See caption above--Evel Knievel on motorcycle in air above fountain]
COLOR PHOTO: REUTERS/BLAKE SELL/ARCHIVE PHOTO Kennedy didn't press charges against Knievel after a "tussle" in '94, and they're still companions. [Krystal Kennedy and Evel Knievel]
COLOR PHOTO: JEFF SCHEID In retirement Knievel has found that sinking a putt can be as unnerving as hurdling a dozen buses. [Evel Knievel golfing]