The Last, Great American Conman
The focus required to become a professional athlete is unforgiving. Forget about participating in the larger world, or developing your social skills. You’ve got practice or a session with the personal trainer or a game. There’s no loophole. You can’t call your dad’s friend in legal or enter an internship program. Becoming an athlete is almost a divine act, and the perks for achieving that status—money, cheering, women—would warp the sturdiest of egos. There’s a reason why the legends are usually less than likable human beings who also inspire the best biographies.
Released earlier this year, Leigh Montville’s terrific Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend, introduces us to the rare loophole and his cunning rise and hard fall both on and off the motorcycle.
Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel (1938 – 2007) was no schoolboy phenom who grew bored of traditional sports and opted for the shaggy-haired rebellion of fast machines. He wasn’t a tireless worker who strove for perfection; Knievel relied on feel. Ever the dedicated professional, he frequently took a shot of something before embarking on his airborne task. He was the Babe Ruth of self-promotion, embracing the qualities of showmanship (exaggerating his injuries to amplify the stunt’s danger; calling from a pay phone to have his name paged in hotels) and pizzazz (dig that star-spangled jumpsuit) to sell himself as a celebrated athlete, even a role model. Reporters (who rarely fact-checked) and talk shows ate it all up. “He was the biggest bullshitter in the world,” Knievel’s long-ago hockey teammate, Tubie Johnson, tells Montville. Even more amazing, Knievel lived a gaudy, swinging-dick lifestyle with minimal athletic talent and no championship-caliber credentials.
Pretty amazing considering that before his storied career of not quite jumping over fountains and almost clearing canyons on a hastily constructed rocket, Knievel was a thug bound for nowhere. The daredevil’s hometown of Butte, Montana, a rough and tumble mining town with too many bars, bred tough guys. Knievel fit that mold. What made him dangerous is that he abhorred authority. And stability. He got bored easily. Add a dash of charisma, and Knievel was a natural con man. “He sold a guy in the bar four tires," says Muzzy Faroni, who worked at the Freeway Tavern in Butte. “The guy went out to my parking lot at the end of the night. His car was on blocks. Knievel had sold him his own tires.” After pleading with the crowd (twice) for financial aid during a hockey game between Butte players and the Czech National Team, Knievel, who organized the game, took off with the money. He formed a protective private police agency, earning work from the businesses he had just robbed.
“I couldn’t believe a thing he’d say,” Johnson adds. “He could sell an Eskimo a refrigerator.” Guess who wound up being a terrific salesman? Knievel put up record numbers for the Combined Insurance Company. “You took these principles into your personal life,” Knievel’s salesman colleague, Jay Tamburina, tells Montville. “. . . You realized how you can control people’s minds just sticking to the goddamned script.”
“Playing with the people’s heads,” Montville writes. “Bob Knievel loved it all. This was what he had been doing for all his life.” The author’s reluctance to hand out warm-and-fuzzies or to sympathize with Knievel is the right approach. Besides, he loves the story of Knievel. Throughout, there’s a strain of “Can you believe this crazy son of a bitch?” Montville employs a fun, even bawdy writing style—anecdotes start with “A story”–without ever losing sight of his subject. The book reads fast and furious, yet Montville (who is in his element with this kind of story—witness some of his previous books like Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero and The Mysterious Montague: A True Tale of Hollywood, Golf, and Armed Robbery)—climbs his subject’s mountain of faults, not stopping until he reaches the summit. The view from the top is dizzying, and a little frightening.
Knievel eventually found mainstream popularity thanks to Wide World of Sports and sold-out shows. A lucrative toy deal made him millions. All the perks caused Knievel’s me-first attitude to grow larger and scarier. His spending habits would have made a drug kingpin blush: a fleet of boats, fur coats, that garish home in Butte. The philandering, always a problem, became epic. Booze flowed. Violence loomed. Just ask George Hamilton, who starred in a movie based on Knievel’s life. The daredevil forced the perpetually tanned actor to read the script—at gunpoint. No one dared joke with the star attraction or interrupt him. Associates didn’t get paid or were treated like garbage. Don Branker, who organized Knievel’s jump over Idaho’s Snake River Canyon, so despised Evel that he slept with his beauty queen girlfriend. The reason? “For spite,” Branker says.
Lots of famous people act despicably without it affecting their mainstream appeal. Knievel crossed the line when he attacked Shelly Saltman, his former publicist and the author of an unauthorized biography, with a metal baseball bat. (An unidentified accomplice pinned down Saltman. Classy.) The private had become public, and no amount of PR bluster could remedy that. Neither could a string of disappointing shows, a flop movie (Viva Knievel!, deemed “hilariously inept” by Leonard Maltin), and an increasingly disinterested public. “The biggest problem with fame is that people begin to think everything is forever,” says Knievel’s one-time publicist Stan Rosenfeld in Evel. Rosenfeld later represented actors such as George Clooney and Charlie Sheen. “Fame and all the things that come with it are lent to you. You don’t own them. You have to pay rent. And when you don’t pay the rent—and people know when you don’t—everything can disappear. You kill your franchise.”
After masterfully describing the tempestuous daredevil’s success, Montville doesn’t devote many pages to the last thirty years of Knievel’s life. It’s a sad epilogue that briefly details the payback for his rent-free, years-long con on the American public. One notable development is that near the end of Knievel’s life, the lifelong rabble-rouser accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. He even talked about his conversion on the long-running television show, Hour of Power “There was more than one in the packed church and across America who thought that he would have been a very good evangelist if he hadn’t taken other paths in life,” Montville writes.
The scheduled date of Knievel’s appearance on Hour of Power? April 1, 2007.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, AMC Filmcritic.com, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and The Weekender, and maintains a movie blog. A longtime Mets fan, Pete currently lives in Bucks County, PA, which is Phillies territory. Pray for him. Contact Pete.