But that all came to a screeching halt in 1977 when the TV news reported that Evel was arrested for badly beating up a guy with a baseball bat. Evel pled guilty and was sent to jail. And with that, all of the goodwill he had built up among kids for years, starting with his "stunt cycle" toy from Ideal, seemingly evaporated almost overnight. No one brought his name up much after that, at least that I can remember.
It turns out that the guy he beat up with the bat, Sheldon Saltman, had written a book about Evel that had infuriated him. The book, Evel Knievel On Tour, painted Evel very unflatteringly as a womanizer, a wife beater, and a recreational drug user, all contrary to his squeaky clean, kid-friendly public image and his "say 'no' to drugs" moralizing from the stage before his jumps. So Evel sought out Saltman and had his bodyguards hold him down as he savagely beat Saltman to a pulp with a bat, even though it was later revealed that Evel had approved the entire text of the book before its publication.
Evel faded from public view after his release from jail. I don't remember hearing anything about him again for almost 20 years, when I read in the local newspaper that he had been arrested near San Jose, California on suspicion of soliciting prostitution while living in a mobile home. It illustrates how much I had loved him as a kid that, upon seeing his name in print for the first time in years, even in this dirty and diminished way, I immediately bought a VHS compilation tape of his greatest jumps, and loved it.
In the summer of 2007, Richard Hammond, the co-host of the widely popular BBC car show Top Gear, travelled to Evel's hometown of Butte, Montana, to meet him during the "Evel Knievel Days" event held there annually in his honor. Richard Hammond clearly loved Evel like I did. But instead of the daring man he idolized as a child, Hammond found a very sick and frail man hooked to an oxygen tank, a shadow of his former self, who could be a prickly jerk at times, and strangely maudlin and reflective at others. Just weeks later, Evel was dead.
What resulted was a compelling one hour BBC documentary that first aired on December 23, 2007, less than a month after Evel had died. Embedded below are two short clips from that show, each only 1 minute long. Together, they capture much of what I just described. I recommend watching them in sequence. In the first one, Richard Hammond is preparing for his first meeting with Evel by re-reading an old magazine interview Evel had given in 1974. Evel's discussion about the impact of his dangerous jumps on his family in that interview is given added poignancy by the fact that Richard Hammond himself was very nearly killed in 2006 when a jet-powered dragster he was riding for Top Gear crashed spectacularly, nearly killing him. In the second clip, Richard Hammond asks Evel a few questions after the two had watched clips of his most famous jumps.