Rocket Man

Ky Michaelson has gone 180 mph on a snowmobile, hurled men off tall buildings, and blown tons of metal into the stratosphere. Are you ready for the biggest stunt of all?

For the jump he had manufactured a device he dubbed the Decelerator. The mechanism operated like a giant fishing reel, with one-eighth-inch braided steel cable loaded on a spool and equipped with a brake. Though they'd tested the equipment, Michaelson says he didn't think Robinson would go through with the stunt, and he was mortified when his partner forged on. On the elevator ride to the platform (el. 1,300 feet), he says, "I felt like I was taking my best friend to death row."

In the video Robinson is obviously nervous as he and Michaelson pace about the windblown deck. The two men exchange I love yous and Robinson leaps, going into an impossibly long plunge as his partner gradually applies the brake on the Decelerator. "I had tears flowing down my eyes as he fell, because I had his life in my hands," Michaelson says. The Decelerator worked, though--and the calls from Hollywood just kept on coming.

By 1986 Michaelson had been engineering Robinson's stunts for the better part of a decade. But Robinson also worked solo on occasion, and in November of that year he was doing motorcycle stunts on the set of a movie called Million-Dollar Mystery.

One night, Michaelson says, he awoke with a terrifying vision. "I saw Dar die. I sat straight up in the bed, and I saw him hit the ground." He tried to telephone his friend, left frantic messages. Then, a few days later, he got the word. Robinson had been working on a scene in the desert Southwest; rounding a curve on a high pass, he had drifted to the outer edge of the road and plummeted to his death.

Ron Braun, another friend from the drag-racing days, remembers the episode distinctly. "Ky called me and said, 'Something's wrong with Dar. Something bad is gonna happen.' The next day, Dar was dead. It was really spooky. I told him later: 'If you ever think something's gonna happen with me, make sure to call.'"

After Robinson's death Michaelson refused to partner up with other stuntmen. ("They were close as brothers," recalls Braun. "He took it really hard.") Instead he returned to Minnesota and focused on a variety of business ventures, including a multilevel cosmetics company. Soon he was earning and spending money like never before, buying big boats, fancy racecars, traveling the globe. "He used to say, 'If I die with a nickel in my pocket, I've been cheated. I want to spend it all.'" Braun remembers. "He told me, 'Ron, I just can't spend it fast enough.'"

But the fat times didn't last and Michaelson soon entered a phase of his life he now refuses to talk about. All he'll say is that the experiences left him contemplating a favorite saying of his mother's: "Trust few, and paddle your own canoe."

Court records show that he found himself subject to a blizzard of business-related lawsuits--including accusations that he was running pyramid schemes. (Court files relating to the lawsuits have mostly been destroyed; in the one case for which records are still available, Michaelson was ordered to repay $8,000 to a plaintiff who had signed up as a distributor for his company.) It got so bad, says Braun, that his friend--who at the same time was embroiled in an acrimonious divorce--resorted to putting a lawyer on full-time retainer.

The combination of setbacks left Michaelson low on morale as well as money. Braun recalls an "ultimate fighting" competition in the late 1980s where the Rocketman was introduced as a guest of honor--a Jesse Ventura-style local guy who'd made a name for himself in Hollywood. When Braun glanced over at Michaelson, he saw him slumped over at ringside, weeping.

But Michaelson wouldn't stay down for long. "His ability to bounce back amazes me," says Braun. "I really marvel at him." He attributes Michaelson's resilience to an "almost childlike" zeal for competition, an urge that manifested itself whether his friend was racing the Widowmaker, cutting business deals, or telling stories. "Years ago Ky used to come over to my place and play with my kids," he recalls. "They had a slot-car set, and Ky would run the wheels off of them, he'd get so into it."

 

The way Michaelson tells it, his life started to turn around ten years ago, when he met Jodi, then an eighteen-year-old ride operator at Valleyfair. She had come to the Cities from North Dakota, where she grew up, along with eight brothers, on a beef farm.

In her he found someone who shared his passion for fast cars--she drives the classic 'vette that sits in the driveway of their home--and a freewheeling life. "If we wake up at three in the morning, and I feel like going on a motorcycle ride, she'll go," he says appreciatively. "She's like me. She loves action." On their first date, Michaelson pushed Jodi into his swimming pool, a prank she tolerated. When she came back the next day with his borrowed clothes neatly laundered and folded, he was sunk.

For her part, Jodi started out skeptical. "At first I thought, gosh, this guy brags a lot and you thought he was kind of egotistical," she says. "But after a while, you realize--criminy, he just does a lot of different stuff." The two were married seven years ago at the Stuntman's Hall of Fame in Moab, Utah, with a white-water-rafting expedition preceding the reception.

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