'I still fight in bars, but I used to win' – When Evel comes a-calling

Published: 11 October 2015

The phone rang in the Bike magazine office. It was Evel Knievel. Three months prior, Bike had run a piece on Evel’s life. He'd seen it and liked it. So he'd decided to ring for a chat about presidents, prison and baseball bat assaults. He still talked the talk of a wildman – despite at 60 having liver disease and suffering the creaks of 35 broken bones. We were glad we picked up the phone...

ike: Where are you at the moment?
Evel: I’m in Florida. I live in Florida in the winter.

Bike: Hey, I was watching an episode of the Bionic Woman the other week. You were on it. How long ago was it made?
Evel: I did that with Lindsay Wagner sometime in the early ‘80s.

Bike: Was that your acting debut?
Evel: No, I had done the picture Viva Knievel with Warner Bros. That was a big picture.

Bike: I believe there’s a new movie coming out about your life very soon. Is that correct?
Evel: This will be the third one. George Hamilton did the first one, then Sam Elliot did a second. This one they were going to get Matthew McConaughey to play the part. It’s about the canyon jump. I’ve read the screenplay and I think it’s going to be a very exciting picture, and very truthful.

Bike: Is this the definitive story?
Evel: No, the last two were good. The George Hamilton movie has made millions and millions of dollars. The Viva Knievel picture didn’t do very well, but I had signed with Warner Bros to do four pictures. I didn’t want to be an actor, but they paid me so much money. I was retired from jumping, and I needed the money because I had spent so much and my tax situation here in the US had given me enormous problems. The government here has accused me of owing much more than I owe, so I just refuse to pay them.

Bike: So are you still battling with them?
Evel: Yes, but I have some tremendously serious health problems now and I’m not going to pay them anything. I don’t give a God damn about them, I’m only interested in my life.

Bike: What health problems?
Evel: I have a liver disease and I’m trying to stay alive. It’s not only a liver problem from the wild ways I lived as a young man, drinking whisky and beer. I also have hepatitis C, which attacks the liver. I’m also a diabetic.

Bike: How does that affect your day to day life?
Evel: You have to be the toughest son-of-a-bitch in the world to get out of bed. Of all the breaks that I’ve had an of all the bones I’ve broken, which is about 35, and all the operations I’ve had – I’ve spent about three years in hospital – this is the worst.

Bike: What were you like in the bad old days?

Evel: I was very difficult to get along with in those days. Boy, I was a bastard.

Bike: Are you any easier to get along with now?
Evel: Oh yeah. There’s no more pressure. I got up every day knowing that at the end of the week I might die. That makes a guy a little grouchy, I can assure you. 

Bike: You admit now that you had a wayward past?
Evel: Oh yeah.

Bike: Any regrets?
Evel: Yeah, I wish I had drunk less whisky. I drank that Wild Turkey 101 proof.

Bike: There were other vices you indulged in?
Evel: No, no. I never took drugs of any kind. Alcohol is the worst you can take anyway, it gets into your blood system so fast. I hated your English beer. Jesus Christ, they don’t even know how to turn the power on over there to cool the fridges. You know, I rode all of your motorcycles from Britain during my career, y our magnificent motorcycles. They’re fantastic.

Bike: Do you still have any of the old bikes you used for jumping?
Evel: I have them all. I’m putting them in my new restaurant in Las Vegas. It’s called Evel Knievel’s Daredevil Cafe and it opens early next year. I rode a Norton when I started, a 750 Commando. Then I rode a Triumph, a T120 Bonneville.

'I should have killed the son of a bitch.
If I ever see that guy public
I’ll beat him until he can’t walk'

Bike: What was that like?
Evel: Oh, a beautiful motorcycle. It was a 650cc bike. Then I rode the Harley-Davidson, and that wasn’t as good a motorcycle as the Triumph. For balance the Triumph was much better, but Harley-Davidson just paid me so much money. Harley-Davidson never had a decent motorcycle tin the ‘70s that could even qualify for Daytona. Their motorcycle was so slow and so poorly built that it was ridiculous, so they made me a deal to keep their name popular in the US and Europe. They paid me thousands of dollars to ride their motorcycle and furnished me with a good motorcycle, the XR750, but it had so much torque that when I got up in the air 140 or 160 feet it would twist in the air. It had no suspension. The XR750 was the only one they ever built that was ever any good.

Bike: How’d you keep a great hulking Harley-Davison under any sort of control in mid-air?
Evel: You don’t. You just ride it home. If I had the suspension that these modern motorcross riders have then I would never have fallen off a bike. 

Bike: What do you ride now?
Evel: I have a Sportster and an old Honda 350 that I used to race when I was an AMA novice racer, but those are the only two bikes I fool around on. I don’t ride much. I like to play golf.

Bike: Golf is a bit different to jumping buses, does it still give you a thrill?
Evel: If I gamble thousands of dollars. I gamble on the rounds. I play every round for $1000 – some days for $10,000 – and I love it.

Bike: Do you win more or lose more?
Evel: Oh well, I have trouble getting a game.

Bike: About the Snake River Canyon jump (he crash-landed his X-2 rocket in the river). First of all, what was going through your mind in the last seconds as the countdown was getting to blast-off?
Evel: When I got down to three I said “God take care of me, here I come” and I punched the fire button. I fired two test shots across the canyon and they both went right into the river. I ran out of money, I had no faith at all in the engineer, a little man with a big ego who didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. I had a great parachute company who I worked with for five or six years before I ever got together with him. He fired them and hired a friend of his and that guy made the worst mistakes that anyone could make. He couldn’t keep the parachute from blowing out. There was too much G-load, too much force.
Then I got in that thing and tried to jump across a river canyon. I tell you something, my balls must have been the size of a stallion horse. I just can’t believe I did that. I tell you something, I missed it, and that was 23 years ago and you know there’s still not one daredevil who has ever tried that again. In 23 years not one person has been game enough to repeat it. Now that says something.

Bike: Have you had any input into the movie about the jump?
Evel: They’re not going to make a trash movie. They don’t want a Sherman tank on the movie set with me driving it.

Bike: That’s your normal reaction?
Evel: They won’t do it. The industry is just a pile of s***, except for the dozen or so good motion pictures and television series that are made each year. Thank God I came along when there were only three networks. I tried to jump 13 buses in London and I told them it was an unlucky number [he crashed spectacularly]. That was the highest rating show they’ve ever had in the history of sport.

Bike: Is it true you put the Watergate scandal off TV for a couple of hours?
Evel: Gerald Ford waited until the day I jumped the canyon before he pardoned Richard Nixon. He told me that he waited because he knew that I’d have so much publicity that he wouldn’t get so much steam.

Bike: Now, you’ve spent some time in jail...
Evel: Yeah, for hitting a guy with a baseball bat.

Bike: If it happened again, would you still have done the same thing to that guy, your biographer, Sheldon Saltman?
Evel: I’d do it a little different. I’d send someone else. That son of a bitch did everything he could to ruin me. I paid him for a year, then he turned on me like a thief in the night.

Bike: So no regrets at all, then.
Evel: No. I should have killed the son of a bitch. If I ever see that guy public I’ll beat him until he can’t walk.

Bike: Do you think he’ll run if you see him?
Evel: If I was him I’d crawl in the first rat hole I can find. He’s a worthless dog. A hyena.

Bike: You lost the civil case. Did you have to pay him anything?
Evel: His lawyer got three hundred and some dollars from me in a court in California. Now with the interest and everything they say I owe him about £35 or £40 million. That stupid son of a bitch never got a dime.

Bike: So you’ll never pay him?
Evel: I’d rather shoot myself than pay that rotten son of a bitch. He’ll never see anything but death from me. I hate his guts. He mis-used the term freedom of the press and mis-used the word friendship.

Bike: I take it that people who have crossed you don’t normally get away with it.
Evel: All I can say is I wouldn’t want to be mad at me.

Bike: How was jail? Did you hate every minute of it?
Evel: I did, but the inmates treated me well. I went in there at the height of my career, just after the finish of my career really. I never went to trial, I just pleaded guilty. Why fool with it? Mind you, they could have sentenced me to a lot more time after I escaped. You know I escaped jail and went after that guy. Yeah, I did two months. They were going to parole me and the night before I broke out and went after him.

Bike: So you never found him.
Evel: If I had found him I would have strangled him.

Bike: Before you tried to jump Snake River Canyon you said: “I don’t know if I'm an athlete, a daredevil, a promoter or just a nut, but I’m staring death in the face making this jump.”
Evel: I was probably all four of them put together... I wasn’t a nut, I was just out of step with society, and that’s their problem.

Bike: Have you always been out of step with society?
Evel: Yes I have. I still am, and I’ll never change. Can I tell you something else?

Bike: Go for it.
Evel: I have a beautiful Aston Martin at home. I have a Lagonda sedan.

Bike: So you’re a car man now.
Evel: Oh, I love it. I’ve had six Ferraris, five Rolls-Royces and I ran two Indy cars at Indianapolis that I owned.

Bike: How much money did you earn in your career?
Evel: Gross? They say it’s about $30-something million.

Bike: And how much of it did you spend?
Evel: Oh boy, about $32 million I guess. But I’m still making money. I’ll always make money.

'Since I was 25-years-old 
I’ve slept with probably 
three women a week. Easily.'

Bike: I’ve read that you’ve slept with over 600 women. Is that true?
Evel: Jesus Christ, since I was 25-years-old I’ve slept with probably three a week. Easily. It was strange, my nickname was Evel, but with an ‘e’ not an ‘i’, and women for some reason are attracted to that. I never could figure it out. Girlfriends and wives of other fellas, they would make their husbands and boyfriends bring them to my motel room and sit in front of the hotel or motel while I made love to their girlfriends and their wives, while I had sex with them. These were not tramps, these were girls who were models for automobile shows and cycle shows that I would appear at. The girls and the ladies in the motion picture business that I had affairs with and went to bed with, it would stagger you.

Bike: you’re not going to tell me the Bionic Woman was one of them. I’ll be really jealous.
Evel: I’m not mentioning any names. It’s just unbelievable. And at the same time I managed to stay married for 37 years and I only just now went through a divorce with my wife. She’s a wonderful woman. She’s a born-again Christian and my oldest daughter has been a missionary all of her life. We were separated for seven years. I have four children and seven grandchildren and my wife just felt...the term she used was that we were unequally yoked. It’s a Bible term, I guess. Since then I’ve met a wonderful, beautiful girl who I’ve been with for five years and I have not been unfaithful to.

Bike: How about the drinking?
Evel: I haven’t had a drink since the day Robbie jumped the fountain at Caesar’s Palace. I don’t drink whiskey any more. I drink a little beer, but not very much. I have no choice.

Bike: When was the last fight you were in?
Evel: Oh, wow, I’m not too old to fight. I can fight seven days a week in the bars, but I’m too old to win.

Bike: Do you still sleep with a gun under your pillow?
Evel: Right next to me, right here. It’s a Smith & Wesson 357 Magnum right here.

Bike: Are you holding it now?
Evel: Yep, I sure am.

Bike: It is loaded?
Evel: Yessir. I tell you there are some dirty bastards in this country who’d kill you for $50. One ring I wear is worth £75,000.

Bike: So you’ve still got all the jewellery?
Evel: Oh yeah.

Bike: And that cane?
Evel: I still have the one with the gold top and a motorcycle on it. I gave the other one to my grandma.

Bike: And do you still own the cape?
Evel: Oh yeah. I had six sets of leathers, four of them were destroyed terribly, but they’re all going in the restaurant. The helmet I wore when I jumped Caesars Palace (another huge crash), I have that locked up in a bank vault. It has a perfect cross smashed in the back of it that’s six inches long and four inches wide, right in the back of the helmet.

Bike: And your bikes?
Evel: I’ve still got them. I only ever donated one bike in my whole life.

Bike: Who to?
Evel: To the Smithsonian Institute and World Museum of Natural History. A Harley-Davidson XR750. That’s something I’m very proud of.

Bike: So were you a better daredevil, lover or fighter?
Evel: I could hold my own at all three.