Today the word “daredevil” is almost inextricably associated with the Marvel Comics superhero of the same name. But long before actors Ben Affleck or Charlie Cox strapped on the red spandex suit, before the fictional vigilante appeared in the panels of a Marvel comic book back in 1964, and even before a superhero named Daredevil who had nothing to do with Marvel was in some pretty awesome comics from Lev Gleason Publications, like the 1941 release Daredevil Battles Hitler, the term could be used to refer to anyone who exhibited recklessly daring behaviour, usually in the name of awe and entertainment.
And while many think first of the blind hero in the red suit when they hear the word, there are in fact plenty of real life daredevils, both from the pages of history and alive tempting fate right in the contemporary world. And while none of these real life daredevils might fight crime like the Man Without Fear, they certainly hold the attention of the multitudes with their stunts and achievements. Should you try any of the things they do yourself? Probably not. But should you enjoy their death defying feats from the safety of your own armchair? Hey, why the hell not?
15. Harry Houdini
Houdini was arguably the OG daredevil. You might think of him as a magician, and he surely did plenty of magic tricks in his day, but in many ways the man born Erik Weizs in Budapest in 1874 was a daredevil above all else. What else do you call a man who routinely had himself buried alive, handcuffed and then sealed into crates that were lowered into water, or strapped into a straightjacket and then suspended from a tall building as thousands of gawkers gasped in the streets below? Maniac? Yeah, that’s one good word. The other is daredevil, though.
14. Annie Edson Taylor
If life were more logical, Annie Edson Taylor would have died in her early 60s instead of her early 80s. Why? Because at the age of 63, she went over the edge of Niagara Falls in a barrel, becoming the first person to survive the plunge. The feat was accomplished in October 24th, 1901, Taylor’s 63rd birthday. She used a barrel made especially for the madcap attempt. It was constructed using oak slats, iron straps, and had a mattress within for padding. Taylor’s plunge left her with a cut on the head but she was otherwise largely unscathed. The stunt was intended to raise money for her retirement, but in fact garnered her relatively little cash.
13. Evel Knievel
During his 69 year life, the man born as Robert Knieval, Jr. but better known as Evel Knievel spent more time flying through the air on a motorcycle than most of us spend aloft after jumping off a diving board. Born in 1938, Evel got his start jumping around on logical things, like rodeo horses and skis. He soon moved on to motorcycle jumps, and it is for these that he will forever be remembered. Evel Knievel spent much of the 1960s perfecting the art of jumping over crazy things on a motorcycle. These crazy things included a massive box filled with snakes and mountain lions, a dozen busses, and the goddamn Snake River Canyon.
12. Robbie Knievel
Sometimes the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say. Such was certainly the case with Robbie Knievel, son of famed daredevil Evel Knievel. Robbie spent his youth watching his dad jump a motorcycle over busses, canyons, and crates filled with snakes, so it was only logical he would end up doing much the same. Not only did the son follow in the old man’s footsteps — er, motorcycle flights — but Robbie even surpassed his dad in many ways. Robbie Knievel successfully jumped his motorcycle over everything from a moving locomotive to the Grand Canyon to thirty limousines.
11. Charles Blondin
While largely forgotten today, in his own time Charles Blondin was quite the celebrity. And fame came early for this Frenchman born in 1824: he was dazzling crowds with acrobatic acts by the time he was six years old. Blondin became a worldwide sensation in his twenties when he became the first person to walk across the gorge formed by Niagara Falls on a high wire. The 1,100 foot trek proved too easy for the capable young man, so he repeated the tightrope crossing several more times, including crossings during which he was blindfolded and one where he pushed a wheelbarrow.
10. Jackie Chan
Jackie Chan is an actor and a martial artist, and perhaps not a daredevil in the classic sense of the word. Except for one little caveat: you see all those death defying stunts his character pulls off in his movies? That’s really him. In fact, Chan is arguably the originator of the “I do my own stunts” brag. He was already a huge star in his native Hong Kong and in China before the 1995 movie Rumble in the Bronx put him front and center for American viewers and the rest of the world. Chan has appeared in dozens and dozens of movies and, almost without exception, he did his own stunts in all of them.
9. Alain Robert
Frenchman Alain Robert is often called the French Spiderman. Why? Well, you know how Spiderman can climb up walls without about the same level of difficulty as you might experience walking from the living room to the kitchen? Robert can do that, too. He is a world-renowned rock climber and urban climber who completes most of his scaling feats without any safety ropes or any gear at all, in fact, beyond a bag of chalk powder and a pair of climbing shoes. He is known especially for illegally climbing famous skyscrapers, and he is often arrested following a climb.
8. Helen Gibson
Even many people who never know Helen Gibson’s name sure were amazed by the stunts she performed. Gibson, who died in 1977 at the ripe old age of 85, was a pioneering stuntwoman in the silent movie era. She began on the rodeo circuit, but soon moved to the silver screen. Her film feats included leaping from a building onto the roof of a moving train, riding around while standing up on horseback, and other feats. She starred in a few movies, but was mostly relegated to character acting in her later years.
7. Ueli Steck
Ueli Steck was a mountain climber of peerless ability. He was such a bold and daring climber, in fact, that he transcended the sport, really becoming more of a daredevil than a mountaineer alone. Steck, who died in a fall in 2017 at age 40, set a record for climbing the north face of the Eiger in just under two hours and 22 minutes. Many climbers would take days to complete this same harrowing ascent, but Steck, using just ice axes, crampons, and unstoppable will, ascended the face of the mountain as if there was a ladder strapped to it. Which there wasn’t.
6. Tanner Foust
Racecar driver, TV host, and stuntman Tanner Foust might not be as famous as other daredevils like Evel or Robbie Knievel yet, but give him some time. Foust is in his 40s as of this writing and already he holds many records, including one truly impressive accomplishment: Foust was at the wheel of an automobile that flew more than 330 feet through the air, setting a world record that has stood with ease since its achievement in 2011. (Foust is also a co-host of the hit show Top Gear USA, which has also garnered him just a bit of attention.)
5. Glen Plake
You know those crazy videos you see of skiers dropping down sheer cliffs and/or flying off huge jumps and/or whirling about in the air in ways that appear to be at odds with the laws of physics? Before the career if Glen Plake, people didn’t really know that stuff, because he and his cadre arguably invented extreme skiing. Born in 1964, this National Ski Hall of Fame member has set just about every record there is in extreme downhill skiing, and has been featured in multiple films, shows, and documentaries celebrating his ability and his apparent total lack of fear.
4. Philippe Petit
For a about an hour back in 1974, Philippe Petit held the attention of thousands of New Yorkers and perhaps millions of viewers around the world, as he walked back and forth on a tightrope he had illegally strung between the Twin Towers that once were the World Trade Center. He was 25 years old at the time of the famed walk, though he had been performing on tightropes for a decade already. In 1986 he recreated the Niagara Falls crossing fellow Frenchman Charles Blondin had completed more than a century before. (What is it with French people and tightrope walking, anyway?)
3. Chuck Yeager
Chuck Yeager’s biography is so long it’s rather hard to try to fit it into one article, but suffice it to say that the WWII Ace and career Air Force veteran, who achieved the rank of Brigadier General, was a pretty damn good soldier in his day. He was also an undeniable daredevil as a test pilot: Yeager was the first person to break the sound barrier, a feat many were unsure could even be done. But he did so on October 14th, 1947, flying the rocket-powered Bell X-1. Oh, and at age 89 he was still flying faster than the speed of sound, this time in an F-15.
2. Lillian Boyer
Lillian Boyer, born in 1901, was not exactly acrophobic. That is to say she was not afraid of heights. Which is good, because her chosen career of wing-walking involved strutting about on the wings and fuselage of a moving plane, usually sans safety gear. Keep in mind that at time of her birth, controlled powered flight was not even a thing yet. So the fact that she was regularly clambering atop planes in the 1920s when flight was still anything but routinely safe, is pretty badass. And don’t worry, she lived to be 88.
1. Felix Baumgartner
Because Felix Baumgartner’s record-setting jump started at a height of only 127,852 feet above the surface of the earth, he was well short of the Karman line, which denotes the barrier between the atmosphere and outer space. Thus we can’t call him an astronaut, and have to settle for daredevil. During his amazing 2014 skydive, Baumgartner leaped from a platform beneath a specially-made balloon and soared down toward the ground so fast that he became the first human ever to break the sound barrier without the use of a powered vehicle.
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