Knievel was born Robert Craig Knievel in Butte, Montana. He was a petty criminal and worked in a wide variety of jobs. He got into performing stunts in 1965, initially as advertising for a motorcycle dealership.
He performed a series of longer and longer jumps, often unsuccessfully. At the Ascot Speedway in Gardena, California, he jumped his motorcycle over 16 cars lined-up in a row on May 30, 1967. Later that year, on December 31, he attracted national attention when he attempted to clear the fountains at Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, but in a awkward landing he broke several bones and was in a month-long coma. This ensured his fame - a movie, Evel Knievel was made in 1971 starring George Hamilton and there were a wide range of merchandising and toys produced.
His longest successful jump was in 1973. His longest attempted jump was in September 1974, with a special rocket cycle he attempted to clear Snake River Canyon in Idaho. The jump was a failure - the cycle parachute deploying on launch and dragging him back. This highly publicized failure was a serious blow to his career. In May, 1975, after an attempted jump over thirteen buses at Wembley Stadium, London, broke his pelvis, he announced the end of his jumping career. He carried on, jumping again in October.
In 1977 he starred as himself in the movie Viva Knievel!. In the same year he was sentenced to three years for breaking the arms of the author Sheldon Saltman with a baseball bat, he served six months. His fame was largely over and while he dragged his jumping career out until 1981 it was little use. In 1993 he was diagnosed with hepatitis C, apparently contracted during one of his numerous reconstructive surgeries. He had a liver transplant in 1999.
His son Robbie "Kaptain" Knievel also jumps.