Evel Knievel, the red-white-and-blue-spangled motorcycle daredevil whose jumps over crazy obstacles including Greyhound buses, live sharks and Idaho’s Snake River Canyon made him an international icon in the 1970s, died Friday. He was 69.
Knievel suffered diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis. He had undergone a liver transplant in 1999 after nearly dying of hepatitis C, likely contracted through a blood transfusion after one of his bone-shattering spills.
Knievel was best known for a failed 1974 attempt to jump Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered cycle and a spectacular crash at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. He suffered nearly 40 broken bones before he retired in 1980.
His death came just two days after it was announced that he and rapper Kanye West had settled a federal lawsuit over the use of Knievel’s trademarked image in a popular West music video.
Knievel made a good living selling his autographs and endorsing products.
He began his daredevil career in 1965 when he formed a troupe called Evel Knievel’s Motorcycle Daredevils, a touring show in which he performed stunts such as riding through fire walls, jumping over live rattlesnakes and mountain lions and being towed at 200 mph behind dragster race cars.
He steadily increased the length of his jumps until, on New Year’s Day 1968, he was nearly killed when he jumped 151 feet across the fountains in front of Caesar’s Palace. He cleared the fountains but the crash landing put him in the hospital in a coma for a month.
His son, Robbie, successfully completed the same jump in April 1989.
In the years after the Caesar’s crash, the fee for Evel’s performances increased to $1 million for his jump over 13 buses at Wembley Stadium in London — the crash landing broke his pelvis — to more than $6 million for the Sept. 8, 1974, attempt to clear the Snake River Canyon in Idaho in a rocket-powered “Skycycle.” The money came from ticket sales, paid sponsors and ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”
Knievel also dabbled in movies and TV, starring as himself in “Viva Knievel” and with Lindsay Wagner in an episode of the 1980s TV series “Bionic Woman.” George Hamilton and Sam Elliott each played Knievel in movies about his life.
Evel Knievel toys accounted for more than $300 million in sales for Ideal and other companies in the 1970s and ’80s.
He is survived by his longtime partner, Krystal Kennedy-Knievel, four children and, 10 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.