At the first stop Leigh Montville ’65 (CLAS) made on a guided tour of Butte, Mont., his host asked a very large Harley-loving local if he had known Evel Knievel during the daredevil’s time in the now desolate city. The man snorted, admitting he had worked for Knievel once and had been taken for a ride: Knievel neither paid him for his work nor appeared at the restaurant where Evel had said he would buy the man dinner.
“Everybody I talked to who knew him had a story, and most of the stories ended with a check bouncing,” says Montville, whose latest book, Evel – The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend, was published earlier this year by Doubleday. “He was so diabolical, you had to laugh.”
Knievel is an icon of the 1970s, when he would try to jump over just about anything – a row of buses, the water fountains at a Las Vegas hotel, a tank filled with sharks, and the Snake River in Idaho – with many of the stunts broadcast on national television.
“The stories were amazing,” Montville says. “Each one would be more spectacular than the last. He did a lot of strange stuff. He was a tough guy. He was the guy your mom was talking about when she said ‘If he jumps off a building …’.”
Knievel grew up in Butte during the hardscrabble town’s heyday as a wild frontier town, where the discovery of copper ore turned it into a 20th-century version of a gold rush. Montville says Knievel stood out from an early age in a town where there were nearly as many bars and strip joints as people, developing a reputation as a con man, a thief, an entertainer, and, as he developed his craft, a self-promoter.
Montville is one of the nation’s best-known sportswriters, having worked for Sports Illustrated and as a Boston Globe columnist. His Knievel book is the latest of his in-depth biographies on sports legends that include Ted Williams and Babe Ruth in baseball and racing’s Dale Earnhardt Sr. He also wrote Dare to Dream: Connecticut Basketball’s Remarkable March to the National Championship with Huskies men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun.
Montville became interested in Knievel in 1974 when the daredevil’s Snake River Canyon jump ended when the parachute of Knievel’s rocket-powered motorcycle opened too soon and he crashed just short of his landing. The writer was supposed to cover the spectacle for the Globe, but was unable to get to the jump site in time. Montville researched the book for about three years, interviewing more than 100 people.
The Butte newspaper, The Mountain Standard, described Montville’s book as “fresh and exciting,” as it details Knievel’s life from his boyhood through his last days on earth, in late November 2007. The stories Montville gleaned from the scores of people who knew Knievel are nearly always head shakers, whether discussing his excesses, his feats, or even his lucid moments as one of America’s great salesmen and promoters.
“He wanted to be rich and famous, and he would do whatever he had to do to get it,” Montville says, “but he really took it to an extreme.”