By Dan Snierson
January 21, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

For decades, motorcycle madman Evel Knievel jumped buses, fountains, and canyons with amazing ease (if by ”amazing ease,” we mean numerous broken bones and concussions). Now the 61-year-old superhero is ready for a different challenge: TV. As color commentator on UPN’s new stunt show, I Dare You!, Knievel brings a unique perspective on thrill seeking. ”I think I enjoy life more than the average person,” he says. ”I’ve learned not to take life too seriously.” In that spirit, read on.

Q: How did you get such a bitchin’ first name?

A: A family friend. When I was 15 or 16, my brother and I stole the hubcaps off of his car — I didn’t know it was his car — and he caught me and told my grandfather, ”You should have named this kid Evil Knievel instead of Bobby Knievel!”

Q: In your expert opinion, when Fonzie cleared 14 barrels on Happy Days, was that actually a wussy jump?

A: It wasn’t very far. I jumped 27 damn cars! I’ll tell you one thing, this Tom Cruise — they had an article about him in one of these [tabloids], and it said he jumped 177 feet on a motorcycle. They’re full of s—. I saw the place he jumped; it wasn’t 50 feet.

Q: What’s your dream stunt?

A: The only one I never got to do was when I wanted to jump out of an airplane at 20,000 feet without a parachute and land in a haystack in the Hilton parking lot in Las Vegas. People could wager on whether I’d hit the haystack or miss. But the Nevada Gaming Commission stopped me from doing it. Sure would have been scary.

Q: You were known for lavish spending. Care to share a decadent story?

A: I bought a Learjet once, and when I was flying at 38,000 feet, I couldn’t read my name on the side of the plane. So I said, ”I’ll fix this.” I told the pilot to land right away at the nearest big airport, and I bought another Learjet right there. Paid a million dollars for it and had a sign painter paint my name on it, same as the other one. Then I hired two pilots and had them fly it alongside me all the way back home to Butte, Montana…. If God wanted you to hang on to money, he’d have put handles on it so you could carry it around like a suitcase.

Q: Are people surprised to see you’re still alive?

A: Yeah, it happens a lot. This little kid in Atlantic City, his eyes were real big and he looks at me and says, ”Ee-bol Kanee-bol, I thought you was dead.” I laughed and scratched his little head and gave him a toy.