His Days as a Bone-Breaking Biker Behind Him, Evel Knievel Keeps Rolling as Painter and Pitchman

updated 10/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

His top is thinning, his middle thickening. At his age, he says, "You realize you are not the man you once were." Small wonder, perhaps, considering the 433 bones Evel Knievel broke before giving up his daredevil leaping of cars and canyons three years ago. Now 44, the aging thrill-biker from Butte, Mont, hasn't hopped on a motorcycle since sometime last year, and the only jump he's made lately is into a new line of work—as a self-styled "painter of Western art" and "goodwill ambassador of marketing."

This time Knievel's vehicle for fame is a collection of $100-to-$500 prints made from his watercolor or acrylic paintings of Indians, moose, deer and sundry other woodsy and frontier subjects. With a customized bus and a trailer packed with his own pictures and those of three fellow artists, he has begun a cross-country gallery-hopping tour for the Legend's Corporation, a newly created Ohio company that has bought lifetime rights to Evel's artwork. "He's a helluva promoter," marvels Legend's president, steel magnate Gary Schreiber. "If he can promote this art one-hundredth as well as he promoted his motorcycle stunts, then we'll make a lot of money."

That would be nothing new, says Evel, who with typical hyperbole boasts that he "made about $50 million and spent about $55 million" during his 15-year stunting career. Now in debt for back taxes, he collects a small salary plus expenses from Legend's and insists he's paying the IRS with a smile. "Everything they've asked for we've given them—including my planes and the rights to my Evel Knievel toys. You got to pay taxes."

Not that Evel is suffering. His $145,000 bus, provided by Legend's, carries $100,000-plus in add-ons, including Ultrasuede wall coverings, cedar drawers, smoked-glass mirrors and "the biggest walk-in shower they ever put into one of these things." While on tour, Knievel invariably visits the local golf course, where he has been rumored to engage in an occasional friendly wager. (Jack Nicklaus once wrote that Knievel made "the game's so-called hustlers look like penny pinochle players.") His schedule leaves little time for painting, and though Knievel packs along works-in-progress, he leaves much of his brush-work for an annual three-month creative stint back home in Montana.

It was there that he first met Jack Ferriter, a portrait artist and onetime sign painter who did the lettering on the "Sky-Cycle" Evel used in his abortive 1974 Snake River Canyon jump. While recovering from one of his motorcycle mishaps, Knievel began hanging out at Ferriter's studio and eventually took lessons from him. Then in 1977 Knievel was sentenced in California to six months in jail for beating his former press agent, Sheldon Saltman, with a baseball bat after Saltman published an unflattering Knievel biography. "Prison was tough on me," says Knievel. "I saw people in prison that made me ashamed I was a human being. Some make Qaddafi and Idi Amin look like Sunday-school teachers." After his release, Knievel returned to Montana and "quit drinking and just kept on painting, sometimes working on three at the same time."

Though unrepentant for his attack on Saltman ("I still hate his guts"), Knievel insists he has since mellowed in other ways. Now reconciled with wife Linda after 24 years of marriage and a brief separation, he speaks proudly of son Kelly, 23, a businessman, daughter Tracy, 18, "a beautiful Christian girl who works in a bank," and 4-year-old Alicia, "the biggest part of my life." Even son Robbie, who has followed in his father's skidmarks as a stunt-jumping biker, is back in Dad's good graces after a long tiff. "We didn't talk for a while, but now we do," reports Evel. "I had no brains when I was 21 either."

Knievel now hopes that his deal with the Legend's Corporation will help erase his own image "as a crazy person with no sense, who crashes his way through life. I think if you have ability and talent in one way, you have it in all ways. I'm not a jack of all trades; I'm a master of many. I don't feel there is anything I can't do if I want to."

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