The greatest showman of my day produced spectacles too big for theatres, eventually too big even for arenas. I speak of course of the legendary motorcycle daredevil Evel Kneivel (1938-2007), whose birthday it is today.
The peak of Knievel’s greatest notoriety coincided perfectly with my boyhood, and was helped along immeasurably (I think) by the fact that the last NASA moon shot had been in 1972. Where were the heroes going to come from? By the time Knievel made his most legendary jump over the Snake River Canyon on his Skycycle X-2 in 1974, this particular 9 year old was paying very close attention indeed. Dressed like Elvis (whom we also worshiped) and imitated by the Fonz (who also jumped over a tank of live sharks on his bike, hence the term “jumping the shark”), Kneivel was so inspirational that he turned even me into a tool using grease monkey (the better to keep my bike in good working order so I could ride up ramps and leap over obstacles, just like all the other neighborhood kids).
Knievel was everywhere. You think it’s a coincidence that Marvel Comics introduced Ghost Rider in 1972? And what about that otherwise inexplicable motorcycle daredevil in the 1974 disaster movie Earthquake? They shoulda run Knievel for President. He woulda had the nine-year old vote sewn up for sure!
By the end of the 70s, he had crashed and broken his bones a few too many times on live television, and me and my friends all moved on to skateboards. I haven’t used a tool since.
Sound like quite a turnaround? Well, yeah. Knievel was courageous in just the sort of way a nine year old is best equipped to appreciate…belligerent, foolhardy, a bit of an entertaining blowhard. It’s no fun watching anyone fail. But when they’re boastful and arrogant and a jerk and then they don’t succeed, we begin to turn the channel.
And now, a very important message from his 1977 starring vehicle Viva Knievel, which pretty much runs the gamut of what there is to hate and love about him. I’m sure glad they let him improvise his dialogue! It’s not every Speech to the Kids by an “American Hero” that features two swear words! But, after he shuts up and rides his motorcycle, we begin to remember why he exists — he is like Sir Galahad on his steed.
And look! It has Leslie Nielsen!
To find out more about show business past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc