Friday, Sept. 28, 2012 | 12:14 a.m.
For the first time, magician David Copperfield has admitted that he thought he would die while attempting his death-defying stunt over Niagara Falls. “We would have a raft and use steel ramps to take me into the water. We were there for a week before just to build it.
“The effects people -- not for the magic -- lowered their steel ramp into the water and within 60 seconds it became spaghetti. You don’t realize the power until you see the terra firma of steel and crossbeams turn to pasta,” said the MGM headliner.
“I remember going to my hotel room every night and dreaming how I was going to die. It was really, really horrible. It wasn’t like, ‘what did I get myself into?’ after the fact; this was before, and it was really bad.
“Then at the end, I would be on a rope dangling from a helicopter. We had a stuntman there ready to rehearse for me, and it was so dangerous, he even refused to do it. “
The amazing escape was the finale of his 13th TV special in 1990. David’s rare and remarkably candid interview in which he also confesses that he’s still trying to get magic exactly right appears in the October issue of Magic Magazine published here in Las Vegas by my pal Stan Allen.
I’ve interviewed David several times over the years -- including going on an exclusive tour of his magic warehouse -- but he’s never gone into such detail about his career, its dangers and disappointments and his extraordinary achievements.
Stan talked with David at the Society of American Magicians national convention held here recently at the Golden Nugget. It’s a lengthy and insightful story that you can read next week at MagicMagazine.com with video at Magic Plus. Stan gave Vegas DeLuxe an advance look at his story.
Stan Allen: How did you discover magic?
David Copperfield: Do you remember Paul Winchell, the ventriloquist? He was just brilliant -- a very troubled guy in real life, but a really brilliant, genius guy. He was an amazing inventor who actually patented the artificial heart. Watching his show as a child made me want to do ventriloquism. I was an only child, but I put together a little act. That act was really bad. I was a bad ventriloquist. That really wasn’t my skill at all.
At one point, I went looking for a better puppet. I went to Macy’s -- Macy’s magic counter. There was a demonstrator there who made a masterpiece out of the effect where the coin vanishes on a little wooden board, as well as other classics, like Cups & Balls and the Professor’s Nightmare. He made his living pitching magic, and he was really skilled.
It’s a parallel of my life. You learn from doing lots of shows. That’s probably where I got the idea. I bought that little board at Macy’s, probably the first trick I bought. I remember looking through the New York phone book for a magic store, and I found Louis Tannen Magic. I went there, the elevator door opened, and I knew my life was changing. Everyone knows that feeling, like you’ve walked into heaven. Man, you walked in, and you just went, “This is it!”
S.A.: So was that the beginning of the passion?
D.C.: The passion was first when I did my very bad ventriloquist show in fifth grade. I did the show, and I’m sure it was really bad, but after the show, my classmates applauded. Then I knew. That’s going to be my job. I need to find something to keep that feeling. My bar mitzvah reconfirmed that desire.
S.A.: When and why did you become David Copperfield?
D.C.: While I loved doing magic -- and magic, for some reason, came easy for me -- my real passion was everything I saw in the movies and on Broadway. I loved the way it felt, being moved by the cinema and the theater. I thought, “I need to combine the two.” I really wanted to be Gene Kelly. I also wanted to be Frank Sinatra. I don’t think I succeeded, but at least that gave me a direction to go in. I really wanted to tell stories and take the audience on a journey, and not have any stereotypical magic items in hand.
I really wanted to find a way of combining magic with all of these other things I loved, and I wanted a name that didn’t end in “ini” or “the great.” A friend (Barry Cunningham) suggested David Copperfield. With 20/20 hindsight, I probably would have chosen something more original. Now, I have to share with Dickens. It all worked out OK, but if I had done it differently, I wouldn’t have to Google myself and also find Charles Dickens’ amazing work.
S.A.: What’s it like for you to watch your early television work?
D.C.: Painful. But you know, it’s the greatest because you learn quick. For me, it was important to just go out there and dare to be bad.
S.A.: We all dared to be bad, but you did it on national television.
D.C.: There was a brochure for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and in there was a quote from Robert Redford: “You’re only as good as you dare to be bad.” And I took that to heart. But on TV, nobody helped me. They had me doing card manipulation in front of a white background. You couldn’t see the cards! But I was trying, and trying hard. It was an amazing learning experience, and every year I got a little bit better.
S.A.: One of the things that came out of your recent interview with Oprah Winfrey -- that you’re trying to get it better, trying to get it perfect.
D.C.: I’m still not anywhere close. I enjoy that process. I love the process of trying to get it right. The drive comes from fear of looking stupid, caught on tape!
S.A.: You have often said that your early heroes were Orson Welles, Gene Kelly and Walt Disney. Why those people?
D.C.: I’m moved by their work. They make me cry; they make me laugh. What we as magicians do is something very special. We make people go “whoa.” And you get hooked on that feeling as soon as you do your first Scotch & Soda or Cigarette Through Quarter and hear, “You’re amazing.”
S.A.: On your first special, you got to work with one of your idols, Orson Welles.
D.C.: He hosted the special. He was an amazing presence. He was a tough guy, very tough, and smarter than just about everybody around. Orson was an amazing artist who peaked very young. He was in his 20s when he did “Citizen Kane,” which might be the greatest movie of all time. And he loved magic for the same reasons we all love magic: He loved doing it. He loved doing magic on [“The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson”]; he loved doing it for the troops back in those days. Working with him was an amazing thing.
S.A.: I heard that Orson Welles once gave you the advice that if you wanted to be the magician in the public eye, then you shouldn’t appear with other magicians. Is that right?
D.C.: It’s sort of right. Orson said that society allows one magician, one superman, one superhero to exist as the one they remember. Houdini, during his day, was the one. There were other amazing magicians around at that time -- Blackstone, Thurston -- but for some reason, people remembered Houdini’s name. There are lots of guys who are way more skilled than me in close-up magic, and some guys do certain illusions as well or better than me. I think the reason why I decided not to have other magicians on my show was because I had so much material that I wanted to put out there.
S.A.: One of the things you popularized was the mega-illusion. And when I think of this genre, I immediately think of your vanish of the Lear jet in 1981.
D.C.: I think that was a really good one. Even the way the camera moves is important. It was a big camera crane. You saw the beginning image that showed behind the plane and above it. Just having the camera move the way it did was very important. I was directing those specials to let the audience feel that they were a part of it -- in one long camera shot. And it worked. It got amazing response. People were talking about it the next day. For some reason, that idea -- a jet airplane vanishing -- made sense to people.
I was more into telling the stories. But the plane got an amazing response, so then came the Statue of Liberty. I really wanted to give it context, to have the audience imagine what the world would be like without liberty. So I met with one of my heroes, Frank Capra. You know he directed the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” That film makes me cry and really moves me. So I met with him -- it was toward the end of his life -- and I had him help me write what I said for the Statue of Liberty.
S.A.: After the special aired, I asked you if the Statue of Liberty was a success. You said that you wouldn’t know for 10 or 15 years -- that if, in 10 or 15 years, people still remembered that you vanished the Statue of Liberty, then it was a big success. So, 30 years later, was it a success?
D.C.: I think the airplane was a much better effect. I think the Statue was OK. My re-edited version -- not a camera-trick version, but a re-edited version to shorten it up and clean up a lot of the extra clutter -- makes it better. At the time, I was doing Kodak commercials, so I had Kodak cameras shooting film around the Statue proving all kinds of things. Without all that, it’s better.
S.A.: After the Statue, you flew over the Grand Canyon, walked through the Great Wall of China and vanished a train car. You escaped from Alcatraz, an imploding building and Niagara Falls -- Fires of Passion and your escape from a straitjacket -- five, 10 stories up? The spikes are on fire. And you’re up there, hanging by your feet. Did you reach the point where you said, “What the hell was I thinking?”
D.C.: The interesting thing is, people like watching an escape they can see in progress. These are not the days of Houdini when folks would watch a box or a curtained cabinet and wonder if he was going to come out yet. The straitjacket does provide that one thing where you can see the progress of an escape. I watched every version that existed. I started searching what was in the public domain, trying to come up with original ideas. Then I staged it like a movie, like an action scene of a movie. And everything was all planned to music.
My hand was going to come out here, and I was going to fall there. Nothing was by chance. Everything was choreographed like a dance. I took it on the road, renting a big crane in every city we played. No spikes, but they would hoist me up and burn ropes, and I would do the escape after every show outside the theater I was working. And it never worked perfectly. Things would go wrong. They’d put too much gasoline on the rope, and the fire would come down my leg. They had to bring me down and Chris Kenner put blankets over me to put out the flames. The idea was to have three ropes burning, one by one, to create more tension.
Statue of Liberty
We did this for almost a year right up to the day of taping. I think the final result was pretty good. I did it only one night at Caesars Palace here in Las Vegas where they staged boxing matches. We did it two times, and it was the two times it worked perfectly. For the cameras and in front of 10,000 people. I’m not afraid of heights. Heights aren’t a problem. The burning spikes below, even though the fall would kill you, that didn’t bother me. It was the idea of getting killed on those spikes. That was troublesome. Niagara Falls was troublesome, too.
I remember going to my hotel room every night and dreaming about how I was going to die. It was really, really horrible. It was really bad. But after the raft went over and the audience saw a helicopter come up, it was the most amazing experience ever. It didn’t feel dangerous to me, even though there was this wall of falling water a few feet in front of me. It was glorious, and I was like, “Can I do it again?”
S.A.: So you hang by your feet over burning spikes, you challenge Niagara Falls, and what gets you -- a pair of scissors and a rope trick?
D.C.: I’d done this rope routine, with very sharp scissors, hundreds of times. And one night in Atlantic City, I cut the top of my finger off. The whole top of my finger is sitting on the scissors, there’s blood everywhere, and I’m in shock. I say, “Ladies and gentlemen, I think I cut my finger off,” and they began to applaud. And I’m beginning to melt because I’m bleeding on everything.
I walk offstage, and they take me to the hospital. I’ve got the tip of my finger in ice. And Mike Tyson’s cut man, his plastic surgeon, sews the tip of my finger back on. I’m OK, but it’s true -- after all these really dangerous things, it’s a rope trick that put me in the hospital.
S.A.: Let’s talk about your museum here in Vegas.
D.C.: My goal is to put together a museum and archive that will last way beyond my years -- for the next couple hundred years, I hope. Who knows, it could be open to the public at some point. I’m adding to it voraciously. It’s becoming the most special thing ever. If you love this art, you would be very proud of this. We have had the most accomplished people in their fields -- directors, authors, producers -- come through the museum, and when they walk out, they’re kind of shaking.
Our art is so cool, so rich with making people dream and transporting them to that special place that these guests are transformed when they see it. I’m very fortunate to love the same thing that you all love because it’s very, very important. What we do -- making people dream -- is very, very important. Let’s just keep doing it right.
S.A.: Somewhere around 22 or 23 specials, you stopped. Any particular reason?
D.C.: I thought I was kind of copying myself. I was also afraid of copying everything else that was happening. There were a lot of magic specials with similar things to mine. I couldn’t find the passion in it, so I needed to get away. I needed -- how can I say it -- a sorbet to refresh my palate. So I started with these islands in the Bahamas. If you want to see a really cool website, go to MushaCay.com and see what we’ve done -- basically reinvented the island and the experience. It’s an amazing project that I’m really proud of.
I needed to get away, and it worked. Now I’m back. I’m so anxious to take magic to other places and find a different voice for me. We’re trying to find a different way of approaching magic to take it to another level. I think there’s room for me on television in a different way.
S.A.: What’s the best part of being David Copperfield, and what’s the worst part of being David Copperfield?
D.C.: Best part, I don’t know. I love my family, that’s the best part, getting good hugs. Between that and doing shows and seeing people’s faces. They’re just really in need of escape. I make a car appear in the show -- spoiler alert -- and the look on people’s faces at the moment cannot be put into words. That’s what I’m here for. Between that and the important stuff with family, that’s the best part. The worst thing -- what’s the worst thing? Not having enough time.
S.A.: Which brings me to my last question. Why are you still doing it? I’m guessing you’ve put a few dollars in the bank, and you certainly don’t have anything left to prove. Yet you’re still working and even developing new material. Why?
D.C.: Because I don’t think I’ve got it right yet. And that’s not false humility. I look at Flying and think, Oh yeah, that’s pretty good, and Death Saw is pretty good. But I’m still trying to get the general public, and all the people I really respect, to be totally convinced that magic is as good as the finest of all arts.
Our thanks to Stan and David for this intimate look at the star’s magic and its extraordinary risks and challenges. David stars as a resident headliner in the Hollywood Theater at MGM Grand.
Magic fans can find Magic Magazine available as a free app at the iTunes App Store on iPads. Individual issues of Magic are available for download for $3.99 apiece. Check out the App Store listing for desktop and mobile devices alike.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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