Mr. Magic : Copperfield Reappears with More Illusions

Chris Willman is a regular contributor to TV Times and Calendar

David Copperfield almost sounds as though he doesn't think it's very fair. This week, on his 15th annual "Magic of David Copperfield" special for CBS, he's going to risk his life for you people, hanging bound by burning ropes 10 stories above a set of 6-foot spikes. His escape from airborne confinement will presumably come just in time to avoid fire, falling, impalement and a generally very squishy end.

"This is probably the most dangerous that I've ever done, just because we're dealing with very primal, variable elements. It's like a primal 'Die Hard' movie," Copperfield says of his Amazon-themed stunt, adding an unusual admission: "I didn't enjoy doing this very much."

But, having endangered life and limb, he knows it's probably a harmless card trick that's most going to impress you.

"I spend a whole year on stage coming up with those pieces we do on TV," he says. "Unfortunately, what people always talk about is the thing where I touched the TV screen and the magic happened in their house. I guess it's probably because they had a chance to participate; it's an experience they don't normally have with their TV set." But he is enthusiastic about this special's variation on the interactive "Videodrome" theme, death-defying or no.

"This year, it's the best one, the coolest one," he promises, suddenly brightening. Copperfield will tell viewers to pick a card from a deck they have handy in the family room, "and even though they're at home and I'm on TV, I'm gonna find the card that they're thinking of. Tell your readers to have a deck of cards ready to go before the show begins, because if they do they'll experience something really incredible in their house. And if they're not playing with a full deck, all they really need are nine playing cards of their choice."

Consider us armed and ready.

Speaking of strong hands, Copperfield might be considered the king of clubs, if big Vegas casino showrooms and the like still count. "The Magic of David Copperfield XV" is yet another hour in which the world's most famous living magician offers TV audiences a sort of "best of" culled from the material he spends months honing on the road in live appearances at good-sized theaters and arenas. "I do 500 shows a year. That's a lot," he says, underscoring the obvious. "My tour makes a rock 'n' roll tour look like Club Med."

Television viewers might approach the magic with even more skepticism than a live crowd; inevitably, you're tempted to try and figure out which telling angles the cameras might be avoiding. So, says Copperfield, "What we try to do is be overly fair and give views that even a live audience doesn't get a chance to see--taking the camera behind the action on stage, taking a handheld camera actually into the illusion and around it."

But is it any harder to amaze people in the Age of the Amazing? In the era of everyday miracles like the microcomputer, fax and cellular phone, does the challenge to come up with things that make us go hmmm grow more daunting?

"One would think so, huh. But it hasn't been a problem. Magicians have introduced so much technology and never have been given credit for it. A magician was the first person to introduce film into the world, the idea of the magic lantern and so forth. It's even said that Alexander Graham Bell got the idea for the telephone from watching a two-person mental act who communicated between each other with a bit of electronics. So I think we just kind of have to outrun technology. Eventually stuff that I'm using today will become commonplace and part of science."

People who haven't caught up with Copperfield in a while and remember him as a wide-collared, shaggy-haired boy wonder of the '70s--he started doing these specials when he was 21--might be surprised at his act now, in which he cuts more the figure of a Neil Diamond-like pop star. Some illusions involve sexy dance routines. This year's special even has a stunt that evokes "Basic Instinct": A woman ties him to a bed, and through what will appear to be an instant "morph," bonder and bondee switch places.

"When I first started, I was who I thought people wanted me to be," he confesses. "I thought magic was about doing Gershwin and Sinatra pieces and having old Donny Osmond haircuts, something more classic like that. And I decided that if I'm gonna keep doing this forever, I'm going to just be myself. So my persona became a little bit more rock 'n' roll. As I got older, it became even more youthful.

"Right now I use the music I like, everything from Guns N' Roses to Mozart. My look has obviously drastically changed, and the style of my magic has become more sensual on a lot of levels. That romance and sensuality is very much a part of me, rather than just pulling rabbits out of hats.

"You keep your audience by being as honest as possible, letting them feel the humanness of you." The irony there doesn't escape the escape artist. "Here's a magician telling you to be honest. I'm the guy that makes his career out of saying, 'I'm gonna fool you .' "

"The Magic of David Copperfield" airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.

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