McGinnis: Author examines the life of Evel KnievelWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
When author Leigh Montville learned he was being interviewed for Toledo Free Press Star, he immediately asked about the Mud Hens and took a moment to remember their old home, Ned Skeldon Stadium.
“It was a weird ballpark, because it used to be a horse-racing track,” he said. “And, like, one of the stands is real long, because it was left over from the horse racing track.”
That’s the kind of recall and detail Montville brings to every facet of his work. For decades, the sports columnist has written for publications such as The Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated. In recent years, he has become one of the best sports biographers, bringing his meticulous and fascinating point of view to legendary subjects such as Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.
How does his most recent work — “Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil and Legend” — fit into the canon? Partially as a work of personal nostalgia, Montville said.
“I had been to the canyon jump, a long, long time ago, and it had always stuck in my mind, that whole scene out there,” he said, referencing Knievel’s famous attempt to cross Snake River Canyon in a rocket-powered “Skycycle.”
“I was young, I was like 30 years old, and kinda overmatched. I was staying about 50 miles outside of where it all happened, and spent my whole time driving back and forth and missed all kinds of stuff that went on. And so, maybe it was a little bit of trying to fill in the blanks of what I missed.”
The famous stunt driver’s influence on pop culture is immense.
“Knievel is a fascinating guy, in that he was a forerunner of a bunch of stuff. You know, the self-promotion, the use of television — he was probably the first reality show that was ever on American television. It kinda charmed me a little bit. And people don’t remember how big the guy was. He was huge.”
Indeed, throughout the late 1960s and the ’70s, few were as famous as Knievel. The life-risking efforts of the motorcycle jumper from Butte, Mont., captured imaginations, particularly among younger viewers. One of the most fascinating aspects of “Evel” is the way it not only tells the tale of Knievel’s exploits, but evokes the context of the era he rose from.
“He was an interesting guy, in that he was kinda counter to the counter-culture that was going on at the time,” Montville said. “He was interesting in that way, in that he became famous as this red, white and blue hero, in a time where there weren’t a lot of red, white and blue heroes. The guys coming back from Vietnam weren’t being put on a pedestal, it was all against authority and the flag and all that stuff. And he was kind of a Midwest, kind of a right-wing reaction to that.”
Another facet of the writing explores Knievel’s nature. The daredevil does not emerge as a sympathetic figure by any means. His life story is littered with tales of crime, debts left unpaid, accusations of anti-Semitism, tales of abuse toward all around him (including family) and a brutal attack on a former associate who wrote a tell-all book. Knievel comes across as a great self-promoter, a good-to-average performer and a sub-par human being.
“I kept looking for redemptive qualities. And there was some toward the end, but you never know if it was part of the con. He found Jesus, but he found him on network television with Robert Schuller,” Montville said. “It was like he was covering his bets. And he did apologize to a lot of people for screwing them over through his life. But he was a bad guy. He screwed over friends, and family. One guy wrote a thing that said, ‘If he was your friend, he would do anything for you. But if he was your enemy, he’d do anything to you.’ And he had a lot more enemies than friends.”
Plans are already underway to make “Evel” into a feature film, directed (fittingly) by former stuntman Ric Roman Waugh. And warts and all, it’s hard to imagine what today’s society would be like without the influence of the flamboyant daredevil from Butte.
“He was the first kinda guy out there who got people saying, ‘Wow, put yourself in peril for the joy of it.’ Millions of kids did it. There’s millions of kids still walking funny from those broken collarbones and stuff from when they were doing those jumps in the backyard. He’s like a look at the American dream, too. You know, that you really can — if you have enough gumption and big enough balls, you can just go out and sell yourself and be a success. Because he sure did it,” Montville said.
Email Jeff at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.