In the five decades that David Copperfield has been practicing magic, there’s one trick he admits he maybe shouldn’t have pulled. It was ten years ago in West Palm Beach, Florida, when the world’s most famous illusionist performed some close-up magic on four unwitting armed robbers demanding his wallet and passport.
“When you have a gun pointed at your face, it’s interesting,” Copperfield tells me as we sit inside his famed Las Vegas headquarters, just off the Strip and down the road from his nightly residency at the MGM Grand. “Instinct and stupidity, and instinct and stupidity. They got caught an hour later. But that’s true. Three girls and me—and four guys each with guns.”
“I showed my pockets empty and they weren’t empty,” he explains modestly, and solemnly, with no trace of the boisterous bravado he projects onstage, or the melodramatic flair the world saw when he survived Niagara Falls and made landmarks disappear on live television. “But it was stupid! Because if they said, ‘Let me check’…”
Copperfield, now 59, was a kid prodigy from New Jersey who built an empire from his own unique brand of show-stopping spectacle; the kind of mass entertainment magic that had families glued to their TV sets in the ‘80s and sent fans flocking from around the globe in the decades since. He’s got 11 Guinness World Records and 38 Emmy nominations to his name, grossed over $4 billion in his career, and last year, by his count, performed over 640 shows.
But years ago Copperfield started quietly putting his particular set of skills to use elsewhere, and not just when criminals came calling. In the subtlest appearing act of his career, the biggest magic superstar of the last half-century came back around to his other first love, the movies, applying his expertise as a consultant on everything from Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige to Paranormal Activity to 2013’s hit Now You See Me.
“The beginnings of magic are the beginnings of my world, because of cinema and Georges Méliès,” Copperfield says as he guides me into his private office hidden behind a storefront replica of the menswear shop his parents, Rebecca and Hyman Kotkin, ran in Metuchen, New Jersey. To enter, one must open a secret door in a faux changing room a la The Man from U.N.C.L.E. “A lot of really great artists started out with their imaginations being captured by magic. It makes people dream in a certain way. There’s a power that it has.”
Now You See Me, a heist-thriller about a band of magicians who use their tricks and talents for good, turned into a global smash when it raked in over $351 million worldwide. For this week’s sequel, directed by Jon M. Chu, Copperfield took a co-producer credit and worked with screenwriter Ed Solomon on plot points and some very epic, very Copperfield set pieces for the film’s cast of magician superheroes.
Copperfield’s shows have always had an Amblin-esque cinematic quality to them, but he’s had his own long history with Hollywood. Like Harry Houdini hobnobbing with the Golden Age celebs of Tinseltown, the self-described movie geek counts Victor Fleming and Walt Disney among his idols and collaborated with veritable legends of 21stcentury cinema. His best-known movie role to date came, unfortunately, in the horror flick Terror Train—a film Copperfield remembers bashfully, even if he has the poster mounted on his wall.
“I’d rent the VHS of Terror Train but not return it hoping to eliminate all copies of it,” he quips. At least it brought him into the orbit of Kubrick cinematographer John Alcott, he says. “He went from The Shining to Terror Train. We’re all geeks in our own way. I’d watch him with his lens packs and all the numbers would be scratched off as a kind of a secret to keep. Today everybody just tells everyone what they do, but he wanted to keep his secrets. I got to hang out with him a lot, so that was cool.”
Francis Ford Coppola helped him create his own Broadway show in 1996 with the late, great Eiko Ishioka, whose surreal set designs line a hangar in Copperfield’s massive compound. Orson Welles was a pal, too (“He was a tough cookie, but he could be very sweet when an audience was there,” Copperfield fondly recalls).
Frank Capra not only worked with Copperfield on his famous Statue of Liberty stunt—he tried to talk him out of it. “He said, ‘You’re going to fail, you shouldn’t fail,’” says Copperfield. “He fought me very vigilantly telling me not to try, and fail. We eventually did it. But he was tough, which is why he was great.”
The significance of that illusion, inspired by his own mother’s first vision of the Statue of Liberty and what it represented to America, holds a special place in Copperfield’s heart. “It’s like me watching Mary Martin in Peter Pan. I flew because as a kid I watched that and it was very moving to me, the idea was so strong,” he says.
There are shades of that April 8, 1983, illusion in Now You See Me 2, which delivers a series of crowd-pleasing tricks that, Copperfield teases, could be achieved in real life. (Its villain, in a stroke of perfect casting, is Harry Potter himself: Daniel Radcliffe.) But, he says, the staggering symbolism of Lady Liberty disappearing as all of America watched—a defining event so iconic FX’s The Americans dedicated an entire episode to it, to Copperfield’s delight and rave review—could not have the same weight if he attempted it today.
“It’s a really weird time right now, isn’t it?” he considers, lounging on a black leather chair in a sitting room, where he half-seriously, half-jokingly played me a five-minute video reel trumpeting his greatest hits. “During an election time we’re focused on these crazy choices that everyone has to make. During that time there was all kinds of unrest with Iran-Contra and the Reagan administration, so it was a time where it wasn’t a point of decision-making that we had a choice in—or a semi-choice, depending on how you think electoral voting works.”
He pauses, seriously mulling the possibility of a magic trick so timely it could bring the country together. “To distract from that with a magic trick or illusion would be very, very hard,” he decides. “It would be hard to break through the clutter right now.”
I ask Copperfield if GOP candidate Donald Trump would make a good magician. It’s the illusionists with long, slender, quick fingers that seem naturally adept at conjuring magic out of thin air. Maybe, he shrugs. The great Slydini, he said, had "stumpy little hands. He compensated with how he moved."
The crossroads of magic and the movies Copperfield alludes to often surface numerous times as he takes me on a personal tour of the International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts. Three assistants dutifully accompany us through the sprawling multilevel complex where Copperfield houses an awe-inspiring collection of over 80,000 pieces of magic history including Houdini’s water torture cabinet, rooms upon rooms of immaculately preserved posters, notebooks and tools used by hundreds of magicians over the centuries, and the breathtaking automata of 19th century French legend Robert-Houdin.
Just past a warehouse where Copperfield keeps the towering statues from Citizen Kane, the masthead of the Black Pearl from Pirates of the Caribbean, and meticulously ordered rows of his own stage dressings and illusions, he keeps a ventriloquism room and a collection of Shari Lewis’s Lamb Chop memorabilia.
Next to a wall of midcentury magic kits stands Doug Henning’s metamorphosis trunk and denim jumpsuit. And next to that, the buzz saw table Orson Welles meant to use to slice Rita Hayworth in half before Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohen forbid it. “Marlene Dietrich got sawed in half instead,” Copperfield smiles.
He’s in the process of constructing the kind of old-timey magic shop that no longer exists—think Martinka & Company, or Tannen’s Magic Shop, or the Macau-based magic shop in Now You See Me 2—in which he’ll house the works of Thurston, Keller, and Houdini. Copperfield happens to own one-half of Houdini’s earthly possessions; the other resides in the Library of Congress.
Some of his fellow magicians have criticized Copperfield for keeping his sprawling collection private; it’s open only to magicians, scholars, special guests, and select press—and even when construction is complete on his magic shop in about eight months, he has no plans to open it to the public.
But as you traverse the museum with Copperfield, it’s clear he’s more than just a master illusionist—he’s a magic historian who can and will enthusiastically rattle off the history and significance of every item in sight and has learned how to use, if not master, just about every piece of history in his possession.
“It’s done with paintings, and AFI does it with film,” he says of the necessity of preserving magician history in a place like his.” Most magician organizations “are more social clubs and they don’t have the kind of money you need,” he adds. “I’ll put $100 million to run half a billion dollar collection of stuff, so that after I’m done it won’t get dispersed again.”
“People try to give their libraries to colleges and they don’t take them because they don’t have the money to keep them,” he says. “But it’s important. It affected the cinema, it affected theater, it affected science. It affected literature—there are more books on magic than any other subject except medicine. Leonardo da Vinci co-wrote the first book on magic!”
With a net worth estimated at $800 million, Copperfield is the rare magician who could actually afford to undertake such an endeavor. He also owns a chain of islands in the Bahamas dubbed Musha Cay that he bought in 2006 and sometimes charters out to wealthy celebs like Penelope Cruz, who asked to use the private resort to host her wedding. He spends about ten weeks out of the year there with his family, and once invited Oprah out to film a multipart interview on the island paradise.
That’s where, he describes, launching into one of his surreal, introspective stories, he once saw a newborn baby bird and felt something akin to a higher power.
“I have kind of a personal relationship with God,” explains Copperfield, whose stage show teases that fans will see “miracles” onstage. “I go through times where I, like anybody, question the reality of that. But Oprah will be on the island and then we’ll have a baby toucan being born. You’ll go visit the baby toucan and it’ll look like Mr. Bigglesworth, all skin and no feathers—and then an hour later there’ll be little straws all over his body, and an hour later there’ll be feathers. But the process of it, the miracle, when you see that… you’re like, ‘What, really?’”
“Of course I’m a science guy,” he adds. “But there’s something comforting about talking to a higher power. It makes me feel good and comfortable. Just need it sometimes. You can always explain why it shouldn’t exist, why it shouldn’t make sense scientifically. I kind of like the idea of my faith and tradition. Am I a good religious guy? No. I don’t practice every day. But I think the foundational structure has really good values and has helped me.”
Meanwhile, the most famous living magician is also fighting to conjure something for his art that no one has been able to achieve to date: A little respect. He helped introduce Congressional Resolution 642 to officially recognize magic “as a rare and valuable art form and national treasure.”
“In the ‘80s they made dance an art, theater an art, and jazz an art,” says Copperfield. “We need to make sure that happens for magic. It’s going to help young artists who happen to be magicians. If they create something it’ll help them with their intellectual property because it’s an actual art, not just a hobby. It’ll help people get grants, not government grants or tax dollars but corporate and foundation grants to help in their craft, like you would for music or theater, and just to get more respect for this art.”
“For actors there’s a book by Uta Hagen called Respect for Acting,” he explains. “I always loved that title. There’s no respect for magic. People sometimes trivialize it; rabbits in hats and all that stuff.”
Unlike his forebears, the most successful magician of the 21st century has had to weather the advent of the digital age—one in which the public is ever savvier, ever more cynical, and has Google at their fingertips to debunk the kinds of illusions whose mysteries could previously be preserved. But Copperfield doesn’t mind the debunkers nor the viral street magicians who came along like his buddy David Blaine, who he calls “the real deal.”
He’s adapted partly by going back to his influences, focusing on magic as long-form storytelling and folding in parts of his own life to create a strong emotional link with his audience. His current show, Live the Impossible, features a 35-minute segment unlike any other he’s done, involving his father Hyman, aliens, and a spaceship. “It’s about 80 percent there,” he says modestly, explaining that he’ll tweak every little thing—a word here, a stage move there—until it’s right.
Watching Copperfield walk through one of his most special rooms of magic memorabilia, it’s clear that his role models weren’t the famed escape artists like Houdini (“he wasn’t a great magician”) but the visual innovators and inventors like Robert-Houdin and Méliès. Copperfield winds up an exquisite collection of handcrafted 19th century automata—think Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, based on Méliès’ life—with the reverence of stepping into a cathedral.
“Storytellers took that technology and said, we don’t have to be magicians to use this,” he says. “A lot of things you see in my show today will eventually be part of everyday living.”
I ask which item holds the most sentimental significance as we walk into a small room, where he houses several of Robert-Houdin’s own diaries. In the corner, for some reason, Copperfield keeps an Academy Award statuette—and not just any Oscar, but Michael Curtiz’s Best Director Oscar for Casablanca. Instead of reaching for that, Copperfield picks up a small leather harness. He places it in my hands.
“That. I can’t tell you what it is, but it made me cry 20 years ago,” he says. He picks it up and places it back on a shelf. “It’s the method for one of the first illusions ever done, built by Robert-Houdin. It’s the technology behind an illusion he built for his son.”
Magic, science, and the movies have always shared DNA and history. But later, Copperfield hints mysteriously that he’s been called upon to use his skillset as an illusionist for other real world services.
“I’ve done things that I can’t talk about,” he says, lowering his voice. “Today, remember: Everything’s hackable. There are guys with a lot of free time that can get into the Sony [computers]… they can look at your phone while you’re naked and they can turn on your camera, so get your tape and cover it up. There are some restrictions; they’d have to touch your phone to get to do that, in most cases, but they probably can get around that, too.”
The heroes of Now You See Me 2 use magic to serve a higher purpose onscreen—and Copperfield suggests that fiction is closer to reality than you’d think. “Here we are, where all this stuff we’re using and all the pictures that you take of all the bad things that you do, because that’s what young people do, they do crazy stuff and say ‘Look at this!’ but it’s there forever, so don’t do it. Now we’re going back to passing notes.”
“Now the only way to really do stuff is my kind of thing, so I’m suddenly valuable. I’m helpful in that way because now if you want to disarm a very bad weapon—and weapons are small now, they don’t have to be giant—who can handle that kind of stuff?”
Copperfield doesn’t elaborate on his meaning. He just smiles. “Now You See Me is not just fiction. That’s real stuff. It’d be shorter and sweeter, but that doesn’t make for good movies. But it’s all real and extremely necessary—and very scary.”