"Do you love Mom?" he would ask. All would nod happily. "Do you love me?" Three of the four would obediently answer yes. The second son, Robbie, would hesitate.
"He would keep sucking his thumb, wave his fingers at me," says Evel. "And then he'd say, 'No.' "
Whatever young Robbie meant by his stubbornness, it stamped him as something different. Older brother Kelly, now 28, is a successful marketing executive. Sister Tracey, 25, is a missionary who works in Pakistan. Little sister Alicia, 9, is an angel, fittingly enough because mother Linda, after 30 years with Evel, can be anointed a saint.
Robbie, now, 26, seems to hate and love his father in equal measure, but he's not ambivalent about wanting to outdo him. In 1967 Evel tried to soar 150 feet on his motorcycle over the legendary fountains at legendary Caesars Palace in legendary Las Vegas. His crash was also legendary—and left him in a coma for almost a month.
The next candidate for that fate is 26-year-old Robbie, who will gun his bike up a ramp toward those same fountains next Friday (April 14). On the one hand, this is a grand American publicity stunt, a pay-per-view Showtime event with an undisclosed percentage of the gross going to Robbie and his manager, 50-year-old Evel, who retired in 1980. On the other hand, it's the latest chapter in a longstanding rivalry between father and son.
Growing up in Butte, Mont., Robbie was jockeying dirt bikes at 4. "Even when I resented my dad for not being around," he says, "I knew I could do better than him." At 11, Robbie started doing guest wheelies in Evel's show. "He kept telling me he could make it on his own, and he started leaving home when he was 12 or 13," says Evel. "Unfortunately, making it on his own included breaking into music stores to steal guitars and cash."
On one occasion teenage Robbie screamed an obscenity at his dad and was knocked down with a straight right. "He wouldn't apologize, so I knocked him down again," says Evel. "Then I kicked him in the face and broke his nose."
When Robbie is asked how often he saw his father during these years, he grins. "Too much," he says.
Robbie quit high school after his sophomore year and, at 15, he was sent to a reform school in Helena. "But it turned out to be a place for just a few kids and a lot of young unwed mothers," says Evel, "so he just screwed around."
"When I was 16, I took off again," says Robbie. "I was driving around in a $100 used Chevy, spray-painted black and gold. After a year of drifting around, I wound up in Scottsdale, Ariz., where I met Lorin, who is now my wife. My life changed when I changed the guys I hung around with." Around that time, he also came to the conclusion that the motorcycle was his transportation to big bucks and the fulfillment of his Knievelian ego. By the time he was 18, he was touring on his own.
Soon he saw that the old man's line of work was not all glory and glamour. "Do you know what it was like to do three jumps a night, risking my body, for a bunch of rednecks at a tractor pull?" he asks. The only thing that was more depressing was the thought of taking a straight job.
Anyway, he knew he had the knack. Evel disputes the Guinness Book of World Records listing for him of 433 career broken bones ("I only broke 35," he says). So far Robbie has proved sturdier, more cautious or maybe just luckier. His worst mishap came in Fremont, Calif., in 1982, when the 19-year-old slammed into a guardrail after clearing 14 cars, breaking his wrist and tearing knee cartilage. Evel's best in the car-leaping department was 21. In Portland, Ore., last July, Robbie went him one better.
Evel claims he made about $65 million in his career, spent it as fast as it came in—and ended up with the IRS dunning him for $7.6 million. "I don't own so much as a block of wood now," he says. Yet somehow he manages to negotiate the roads around his Butte spread in a $200,000 Aston Martin. The legend gets by and, through the rebel, is back in the limelight. "He's loving it," says Robbie.
Indeed, Evel has a tendency to interrupt Robbie in interviews. "Robbie is the true heir to the Knievel name," he boasts. "And he can not only jump better than me. bin he does it with no hands on the bars."
No hands. No fear. "I've dreamed a lot about jumping those fountains," says Robbie, who lives in Las Vegas with Lorin and their 2½-year-old daughter, Krysten. "But there are no nightmares. Sure I ran away from my father and the way he lived. But there's a lure that makes you come back."
"When you're young in this business," says Evel, "you think you'll never run out of guts or money. I only ran out of money."
Robbie, nursing a soda, toasts his father as Evel slams down a tequila. "Everybody lives according to their bloodlines," Robbie says. "Ours happen to be hotter than most."
The famed daredevil Evel Knievel, who made a career of risking his life for adulation as well as cash, used to openly beg for love from his four kids.