LOS ANGELES - David Copperfield - magician, sleight-of-hand expert, illusionist - has levitated over the Grand Canyon, appeared to glide through the Great Wall, and made the Statue of Liberty seem to vanish. But on this cold, gray L.A. day, he's sniffling and coughing like a regular mortal, unable to make a winter cold disappear.
Layered against the chill of a drafty hotel cafe, Copperfield, tall, whippet-thin, and delicately handsome, looks slouchy-chic in a white T-shirt and soft, butter-beige sweater. But even though he is sick, he has a wealthy glow. After all, he is the 13th-highest paid entertainer on the planet (at least that's what his bio says). Even his spiky black hair is expensively chopped.
The 44-year-old magic man has conjured up his next spectacular “physical challenge,” as he likes to call them. On April 3, for a live CBS TV special, Copperfield will envelop himself in a “tornado of fire,” a new illusion made of swirling, 2000-degree flames so intense that one wrong move could turn him into the world's highest paid piece of toast.
“I do one thing every two or three years because it takes me that long to find something that is going to be doable and to get worked up for,” says Copperfield. “It's usually about facing a fear - a fear of height, a fear of water. When I was 6, I was in a fire in New York, a kitchen fire in my uncle's house in Brooklyn. We all got out. The place totally burned down. It was a very bad memory for me and my family. And I've always had this fear of getting burned alive. This is how I learn to get over it.”
To conquer his fear of drowning, he says, he immersed himself, wrapped in chains, in a water tank a la Harry Houdini. That trick went awry when he got tangled and nearly didn't make it out alive. He was in a wheelchair for two weeks from his injuries.
“I finally did it,” he says. “But it really didn't help me get over anything, even though for a year before I had been holding my breath underwater in the bathtub, practicing.”
He faced his water phobia again by going over Niagara Falls - or appearing to - encased in a metal contraption.
For his fear of high places, Copperfield developed a death-defying levitation trick, suspended himself in a straitjacket over a bed of burning spikes, and performed a flying illusion that sent him whooshing over the heads of theater audiences like a lanky Peter Pan, except with no visible wires.
He spends years working on new stunts, he says. The fire-tornado “is not a trick,” he insists. “I'm not disappearing. I'm not turning into Loni Anderson. There are no trap doors. The winds will be of F-2 velocity, capable of blowing a house off its foundation. This is about being really immersed in the situation.”
It also is about competition. Another magician named David got a lot of attention last November for entombing himself in a coffin of ice for three days, then emerging on a live ABC special.
Is this Copperfield's attempt to show David Blaine who's the real master illusionist?
“I like David and he got great reaction (to the ice stunt),” says Copperfield. “People really responded to what he did and I love that same kind of response. That's why for 20 years, just about every three years, I've done things that are physical challenges.”
Urged to deconstruct Blaine's act and what some other magicians deride as Blaine's “catalog magic,” Copperfield demurs. “I won't say anything negative about another magician. Anyone who brings a new audience to magic is good for all of us.”
Copperfield is a pro at misdirection, a talent all great magicians use to shift the audience's attention away from the trick of their tricks. Copperfield can do it with cards or conversation. Asked about his busted six-year relationship with supermodel Claudia Schiffer, he deftly redirects the topic into a discussion of tabloid untruths and how he won a lawsuit against Paris Match for suggesting that his and Schiffer's engagement was a fake.
Born David Seth Kotkin in Metuchen, N.J., Copperfield was a working magician at age 12. Now performing more than 500 live shows a year, Copperfield has earned Emmys, a French Chevalier of Arts and Letters, and the designation “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress.
Copperfield hasn't performed in a TV special since 1993. His absence from the tube, he says, had a lot to do with his nonstop traveling and live performance schedule and with troubles in his personal life. He also was waiting until he perfected the fire-tornado challenge, which he'll perform for television in a theater space in New York City. “Probably a theater that's about to be torn down, just in case something does go wrong and the place burns up,” he says, arching his bushy, black brows.
All of his advisers have begged him not to try the stunt. Dr. Peter Grossman, a physician working with Copperfield on the TV special, says he told Copperfield that “the risks are really extraordinary. Aside from the obvious, even under the best circumstances getting burned is a miserable process and there's a very high likelihood that one small error can go wrong and lead to physical impairment, disfigurement, and an extraordinary amount of pain.”
Copperfield will be coated in a fireproof gel and will wear a specially designed body suit to protect him from the heat.
Going to such lengths to wow viewers is a way to “renew the magic genre,” Copperfield says. “Doing the same thing isn't interesting to me. I always need to find a way to make the magic bigger emotionally.”
And is his magic-as-therapy working for him? Only partly, he says.
He has become terrified of flying on airplanes after a flight to Peru that he was on plummeted 5,000 feet in two big drops. “I don't like not being in control,” says Copperfield. “I don't know the guy behind the cockpit door.”
He also has a recurring dream of being smothered by a giant marshmallow. That's a symptom of a fear he hopes to conquer with his next physical challenge: being buried alive.
Unlike Blaine, whose burial stunt in Manhattan last spring left him fully visible to passers-by, Copperfield's challenge will have him being interred in the dark. “It will have to put me in real physical danger,” he says. “The bigger the danger, the better it is.”