An Interview with Leigh Montville
Intro: Encore for a Storyteller
Leigh Montville, in his biography of Manute Bol, wrote in the foreword:
The figure stands on a hill and looks across the African landscape. The sun is round and bright and red behind him. The figure is tall, tall, very tall. He could be a Giacometti sculpture. He could be Gumby.
The figure walks a great distance, past the giraffes and hippos of his native village, straight ahead, from one world to another.
He stands again, in the center of a polished wooden floor inside a large arena. A spotlight focused on his black face. A purple mascot with HOOPS written across his chest comes up to the figure, putting his right hand high. The figure answers, slapping the mascot’s purple fur hand.
This is a fable.
This is the truth.
That was in 1993. Since then, Montville has written five more books, including bios of Dale Earnhardt, Ted Williams and Babe Ruth. He combines an eye for character and plot with a narrative touch that is anecdotal, empathetic, whimsical and ironic – a style that was distinctive in the 1970s, and is even more iconic today, in an age when commentary has trumped storytelling.
Montville’s seventh book is due out in May: “The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend.”
The former Boston Globe columnist and Sports Illustrated feature writer took time out from the final two chapters to talk to SMG. — SM
Leigh Montville: Interviewed on January 3, 2011
Position: Freelance Author
Born: 1943, New Haven
Education: U-Conn, 1965, English
Career: New Haven Journal Courier 1965-68; Boston Globe 1968-89; Sports Illustrated 1989-2000; freelance author 2000-present
Personal: single, two children, two grandchildren
Favorite restaurant: Legal Sea Foods, Boston “I eat differently than I used to”
Author of: “The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend”, May 2011.
Q. What drew you to Evel Kneivel?
A. In 1974 when he jumped Snake River Canyon I was sent out by the Globe. I was 30 years old, low man on the totem poll, and had a motel room 40 miles away – so I was driving 80 miles total every day, to Burley Idaho. It was fascinating because newspapers didn’t know who to send to cover it. Some sent a sportswriter and treated it like a sports event; some sent science writers who covered moon walks and launches; and some sent sob sisters who covered cultural events – thinking he was going to die.
It was a weird conglomeration – so cartoonish it stuck in my head. I didn’t do a good job – I was an outsider missing press conferences – and when I looked back at the stories they were okay but I could have done better. I carried that around with me – I missed something there. He was kind of a despicable guy out there – everybody hated him. Somebody wrote that in a matchup of Evel against the canyon the canyon was a sentimental favorite. Another guy said he hoped Evel would live so he wouldn’t “become a fucking martyr.”
Q. How is his story relevant today, if at all?
A. It was a story of a guy coming from nowhere and making himself known by putting his life on the line. Look back and he was the precursor to extreme sports and the X Games – he started all that stuff. Kids were captivated by the idea of doing something dangerous – he brought that out. Also, it was kind of the beginning of reality tv – he strung out his life on tv – you watched to see what would happen to him next – would he be a survivor or would he not make it.
Bob Arum said it was total shit – like all this shit on tv now. It’s cheap tv and people watch it.
Q. What other ideas did you consider?
A. When I finish a book I talk with the editors about doing the next book. I always want small little stories – I’d like to write a book like ‘Seabiscuit’ – a story nobody knew that rattled across the country.
But publishers wants an iconic name whose picture on the cover sells the book right there. So there’s like a little argument back and forth. My next-to-last book was Babe Ruth which is as iconic as you can get in the U.S. Then I convinced them to do a little book, “Mysterious Montague”, about a golf hustler. It didn’t sell – they were right on the money. Babe Ruth was a New York Times bestseller. So we tracked back toward iconic.
I tried a few different things. I’m linked into sports but would like to move out a little – I suggested a bio of Dr. Billy Graham, a down the middle version. No. Then I suggested Gene Autry, a guy who was really famous, a movie star, country western singer and sports guy. They didn’t go for that either. Then I harkened back to Evel Knievel and they liked it from the beginning.
It is a good idea. There was an Evel Knievel stunt cycle put out by Ideal Toys, in the ’73-’75 years. It was a big Christmas toy for boys – the toy everybody had to have – kids just loved it. The back wheel was a gyroscope and you put the back wheel on an energizer and cranked as hard as you could and when you stopped the cycle would fall down and shoot off the energizer. You could set up jumps, do a wheelie, turn corners, put up flaming stuff and get the bike to jump over it. Kids shot ‘em off apartment houses. It was indestructible.
That kind of brought him into the house, like a member of the family. A bunch of people in their late 40s and early 50s were kids in those days and they have a great interest in Evel Knievel.
Q. How long have you worked on this?
A. A couple of years. I’ve gone to Butte, Montana a couple of times, where he grew up. If you learn about Butte you learn about him and how he was formed.
His mother and father married young – she had him first and his brother Nick 10 months later and then soon after they divorced. The mother went to Reno and the father to Sacramento and the two boys were raised by the grandparents – old people who didn’t have the energy to fight ‘em. The two kids grew up on the streets.
Butte was one of the capitals of fast living in America. It was a copper mining town that attracted people from around the world to make a fortune. You think of it as a cowboy town but I was more like Pittsburgh. Work was perilous in the copper mines and guys make good money but they took all the risk and then all these hustlers came to town to take their money away. There were bordellos and a lot of bars. Outside of New Orleans it was the largest city without an open container law and prostitution was legal until 1982. The street with prostitutes was two blocks from the high school. In 1915, 100,000 people lived there, now it’s 25,000. The mining went to Chile and the town is faded now.
Q. Who remembered him?
A. Everybody pretty much – as a wacky guy. He never graduated high school – at 22 he played hockey and started a semipro team, the Butte Bombers. He was the coach, winger, owner and GM. One of his scams involved the 1960 Olympics, which were in Squaw Valley. He got the Czech team to come and play an exhibition game against the Bombers. The Czech team wound up losing a lot of money on the deal and there were stories that he stole the money.
He had a guide service to Yellowstone Park to take hunters. There were too many elk in the park and the government was going to send hunters to kill the elk. He organized a protest and hitchhiked to Washington to talk to JFK.
He also was an insurance salesman for awhile.
Q. What were your difficulties in reporting this?
A. The major difficulty is that his family didn’t want anything to do with it. They have some tapes he left and they want to do an autobiography. But he signed away his book rights a bunch of times and never carried through with any of them and spent the money. If the family tries to put out an autobiography they’ll be hit with a bunch of lawsuits.
He beat up a guy named Shelly Saltman who wrote a book about him. Knievel and another guy caught up with him at the 20th Century Fox lot. The other guy held Saltman while Evel beat him with a baseball bat and broke his hands. Evel spent six months in jail and Saltman got a $10 million judgment against him and against the estate. So the estate is hobbled in what it can do.
The family was off limits. There is one son, Kelly, who I approached in different ways. His brother was going to talk but didn’t want to piss off the family. Kelly said ‘I don’t want anybody in the family talking to you because we’re going to do our own thing’.
HBO was going to do something but walked away because they made it so complicated.
When I did the Ted Williams book his kids really didn’t talk to me. You find that people have their own streets and don’t want to get involved. But I found his friends, people he grew up with, a cousin who grew up with him, an eight-time congressman from Montana, and his half-sister – she talks to me – and so did everybody who did business with him. He became a marginal commodity and a lot of people who did business had problems – Arum, Saltman, George Hamilton who made the movie, and people from Caesars Palace where he had the big crash.
Q. Challenges in writing this?
A. One problem is that he lied and exaggerated everything. His crash at Caesars was the event that brought him to the American public. The night before the crash Knievel had told John Derek, ‘I don’t think I can make it’. Derek was going to make a film of the event, but then he said ‘I don’t want to film your death’.
He shot the event and gave the film to Knievel. It’s a terrific film clip – unlike any you had seen at the time – it showed him falling and bouncing and bouncing. Knievel took that little piece of film and went on all the shows – Carson and Bishop and Griffin – and the audience was stunned.
Knievel suffered injuries to his pelvis and a broken leg. Three years later he said he was in a coma for 29 days, and this gets to the point about his exaggerating. Jay Sarno was the head of Caesars. I talked with his son, who was 10 at the time and who went to the hospital with his father after the crash. He stayed in the limo when his father went in. When his father came out an hour later and they asked how Knievel was his father laughed. He said, ‘He’s fine but when you read the newspapers he’s really going to be hurt – it’s a publicity thing.’
He exaggerated throughout his life. Robert Boyle of Sports Illustrated wrote that in 20 minutes he could tell stories to keep fact checkers working for 20 years. Four grafs later he had Knievel in a coma for 29 days.
I got some of the stories sorted out. But some people say one thing and others say another thing. I don’t think we’ll really know. Even if he did leave an autobiography he’s not going to be honest in it.
Q. How much work remains?
A. A couple of chapters – they’re due in two weeks.
Q. How do you do under deadline?
A. I’ve always worked under deadlines. When I worked at newspapers I was always late against the deadline. At the magazine it got stretched out – I had a couple of days to be late. Now it takes a few months to be late against the deadline.
Fear is always my great motivator. Not a good way to work.
Q. Thoughts on sports media today?
A. It’s a lot of no-story stories. Nobody interviews anybody – it’s 95 percent opinion. It’s gone back to the way it was done in the 20s and 30s. Everybody writes their lists of top 10 this and top 10 that – I throw out that stuff. All the writers write the same way they talk on radio and tv.
Maybe it’s better. Nobody reads anyway.
(SMG thanks Leigh Montville for his cooperation)