No, it wasn't in 1974, when Evel plunged into the Snake River Canyon. Rather, it was three years later -- 30 years ago today -- on January 31, 1977.
The term jump the shark -- the point when a TV show or other entertainment makes a sudden turn for the worse -- was inspired by the Happy Days episode in which Fonzie did a waterski-jump over a shark. However, the episode was itself inspired by Evel's earlier, real-life shark jump, making him -- not Fonzie -- the true originator of the career-killing shark jump.
I was seven years old. Three months beforehand I saw Evel in person at his previous jumping engagement, and my parents again let me stay up late that January night to watch the next chapter in Evel's messy saga. He was slated to jump the "world's largest indoor saltwater pool" stocked with "man-eating killer sharks." The jump would be the finale in a 90-minute showcase of various daredevils and their respective stunts, broadcast on CBS from the Chicago International Amphitheatre. This was Evel's most heavily promoted event since Snake River, and his first-ever jump in primetime.
Called Evel Knievel's Death Defiers, the show capitalized on the mid-'70s shark paranoia set off by Jaws, offering the possibility of seeing Evel mauled to shreds on live TV. However, the sharks weren't really "man-eaters," and they certainly didn't measure up to the 36-foot great white from the blockbuster movie. Fourteen lemon sharks, eight feet long, were flown in from Florida; only 13 survived the trip. The animals had been heavily tranquilized, and because of poor medical care, several others were near death. Said the shark wrangler, "If (Evel) should fall in, he'd spook those animals right out of the pool... If one of them accidentally hit Knievel, there will be two of us there in wet suits to save (the shark) from total destruction." Chicago's Commission on Animal Care and Control tried stopping the show, fearing that if Evel landed in the pool, the sharks would have to be killed to save Evel.
That afternoon, hours before the show, Evel made an unscheduled rehearsal leap in the empty arena. A safety deck shortened the span across the 90-foot pool to a scant 64 feet, less than half the length of his longest jump. Perhaps he was out of practice, or the landing ramp was too slick, or maybe he just had one too many shots of Wild Turkey. In any event, Evel cleared the pool with ease, but he lost control upon landing. He skidded off the ramp's side, inadvertently crashing through a retaining wall and into a cameraman. (In the photo below, Evel had jumped from the pool's near end, over the safety deck extending over the water at the far end, and slipped off the right-hand side of the landing ramp just before it sloped upward.)
Evel and the cameraman were rushed to the hospital, marking the only time one of Evel's stunts had injured a bystander. Evel claimed the cameraman's eyeball was gouged out, though the guy was only treated for minor injuries and soon released. Evel wasn't as fortunate, fracturing his collarbone and right arm, which required bone graft surgery and a permanent metal plate.
The 3,000 spectators who soon filled the arena booed upon the announcement that evening's main event had been scratched. The rest of the program went ahead as scheduled, as did the live broadcast, co-hosted by Jill St. John and Telly Savalas, who explained at the show's opening what happened. They peppered the program with periodic updates from Evel's hospital room, but with the star absent, any suspense was lost. Not until the program's last segment, when Evel was supposed to do his jump, was videotape of the wipeout shown. Home viewers were left as disappointed -- if not outright angry -- as the live audience. I went to bed in tears.
With perplexing logic, Evel explained from his hospital bed, "I knew there was going to be an accident, and the show couldn't be cancelled. So I decided to take what was coming to me, and I didn't want to see anyone else hurt. I made the practice run before an empty house, so no parents or children would be hurt. I knew when I saw (the jump setup) all squeezed together that it wasn't going to work... (The crash) was a combination of pressure and faulty, hasty preparation... I felt someone would have been killed. It was my obligation to make it safe... I will return, I'm not a quitter.”
Evel never returned. The event ultimately proved to be his final, high-profile, nationally broadcast performance, and eight months later, on September 20, 1977, Fonzie jumped his own proverbial shark. The following day, Evel beat up Sheldon Saltman with a baseball bat.