Published January 13, 2015
Evel Knievel has trouble now just walking from his condo to the pool.
The '70s cultural icon and poster boy for fast living and derring-do is 67, his body broken by years of spectacular crashes and ravaged by a multitude of serious ailments. The king of the daredevils can hardly get out of bed most days, let alone straddle a Harley.
On bad days, Knievel wishes he had gone into another line of work. On better days, he doesn't regret a minute. Lung disease sometimes makes it hard for him to talk, but his stories still drip with swagger. He can be kind and gracious one minute, irascible and profane the next.
Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable condition, is scarring and hardening his lungs. He's recovering from a stroke and has diabetes. He's broken about 40 bones, is full of plates and titanium parts and is constantly in pain. Repeated concussions have affected his short-term memory.
The man who survived 300 perilous motorcycle jumps and once climbed into a rocket-powered cycle to fly over a canyon, now stays close to an oxygen tank, ingests 50 pills a day and sucks on lollipops that deliver fentanyl, a heavy-duty painkiller.
"People think I've been through something in my life from what they've seen on national television, my accident at Caesars Palace for instance," Knievel says. "Look at what the hell I'm going through now. How much can the human body endure?"
Knievel is preparing for his annual summer trip to his hometown of Butte, Mont., which celebrates his legend every July with the Evel Knievel Days festival. The event gets larger every year, but for him the journey gets more difficult.
"It's awful hard for me to see him like this," says Billy Rundle, an old friend and executive director of the festival, which attracted 50,000 people last year to see the daredevil.
His personal appearance days might be numbered, but one thing's for sure — some 25 years after his last motorcycle jump, people still want a piece of Robert Craig Knievel, American folk hero.
The man who made millions risking his life earns a decent living now at the kitchen table signing thousands of autographs for dealers to resell. He endorses a few products and until recently made regular paid appearances with a 40-foot trailer full of his motorcycles and other curiosities, including the wrecked Skycycle he used in the unsuccessful jump at Snake River Canyon in Idaho in 1974.
The Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle, one of the best-selling toys of the '70s, is being sold again by Ideal Toys. The auction Web site eBay lists hundreds of Evel items for sale, from jigsaw puzzles to pinball machines. An Evel Knievel rock opera is in the works, and the Country Music Television channel will examine his life in a program May 28. He's done a couple TV cameos recently and still gets stacks of fan letters.
"Over time his legend has kind of snowballed," says Knievel biographer Steve Mandich. Other daredevils, including son Robbie, have made longer jumps, but Knievel was the original article, a brash showman in his signature red, white-and-blue leathers. Oddly enough, the horrific crashes, many captured by ABC's "Wide World of Sports" cameras, made him even more popular.
"He kept jumping longer and longer, and he kept crashing harder and harder, and he kept getting up and doing more stunts," Mandich says.
"I became part of their lives," Knievel says. "People wanted to associate with a winner, not a loser. They wanted to associate with someone who kept trying to be a winner."
Once a carouser of legendary proportions, Knievel slowed down after a near-fatal bout with Hepatitis C and a 1999 liver transplant. He lives with 36-year-old Krystal Kennedy-Knievel, his longtime partner who looks after him and helps with his business affairs. (They divorced in 2002 but remain together.)
He's got a few regrets but won't share them.
"No king or prince has lived a better life," he says. "You're looking at a guy who's really done it all. And there are things I wish I had done better, not only for me but for the ones I loved."
Death doesn't scare him. He's stared it down before, flying his motorcycle off countless ramps in countless packed arenas.
"I can't wait to meet God," he says, "and ask why he didn't make me go faster on some of those jumps, why he put me through all this pain. He knows I'm not evil."