David Copperfield

By
Photography Robbie Fimmano

Published January 17, 2017

In March 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing, and almost immediately people began to lose their minds. Not only in fear for the passengers and crew onboard, but also, in no small part, in plain awe of the mystery. For weeks, 24-hour news channels provided near constant coverage of the possible where, why, and how of the disappearance. Conspiracy theories sprouted in abundance, speculation, investigation, and even faith went totally weird—Was the sky, in fact, falling? The idea, in this day and age of almost continuous surveillance, that a Boeing 777 airplane could seemingly vanish from thin air was a total and unsettlingly intriguing marvel.

Now, the stakes and tone are obviously vastly different, but it is just this kind of stomach-dropping, mind-tingling effect that David Copperfield has attempted to touch on with his most celebrated illusions. When, in 1981, he made a plane vanish, and then, in 1983, made the Statue of Liberty disappear (and then brought it back), people went absolutely bananas. Copperfield’s toying with our perception seemed to rattle us, deep. But, as he says, it was the narrative context in which he placed these feats, the story he told in their production and execution, the personal touches, and the theatrical élan with which he pulled them off that really made them hit their mark—and their mark, of course, was and ever is us.

Growing up in New Jersey, David Seth Kotkin was taken by magic early. He was, at age 12, the youngest member admitted to the Society of American Magicians, and at the same age, was published in the multivolume encyclopedia Tarbell Course in Magic-and, as he tells Judd Apatow, even as a prodigious young talent, he was not entirely immune to the attention, and especially the batted lashes, that his illusions gained him in the halls of his school. In 1974, Kotkin became Copperfield—sharing his stage name, notably, with a thinly veiled semi-autobiographical creation of one of the world’s greatest storytellers—and the myth­making began. As he explains to Apatow, Copperfield has always tethered his greatest illusions (flying, walking through the Great Wall of China) to universal stories of longing and overcoming fears. The proof of which seems to lie in the perfectly egged pudding: In the course of his more than 40-year career, Copperfield has sold more tickets than Michael Jackson or Elvis (grossing over $4 billion and counting), has won some 21 Emmys for his TV specials, holds 11 records in the Guinness book, and is consistently referred to as the greatest illusionist of all time, and still averages 15 performances a week, 640 shows a year-now, in his newest show, Live the Impossible, at the David Copperfield Theater at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Like Apatow, Copperfield is also, perhaps even primarily, a fan of the game he plays, and his private collection of historical artifacts, which he keeps in what he calls the International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts, make up the largest stash of magical memorabilia in the world. Here, the two scholar-performers talk about their childhood heroes and about making it in their risky businesses.

JUDD APATOW: It’s about time we get to finally have this chat. I’m fascinated by the similarities and differences between comedians and magicians. What do you think they are?

DAVID COPPERFIELD: I’ve always taken a lot of cues from comedy minds. The guy that discovered me in the very beginning was Joseph Cates. Joe and Gil Cates were the Cates brothers. Gil produced the Oscars for many years. Joe produced a lot of comedy specials, Steve Martin specials, and he discovered me, this 18-year-old kid. He said, “You’ve got a point of view with your magic. There’s this comedy to it, there’s drama. You’re telling stories with magic.” Later, when I was at Caesar’s Palace, and they were trying to get me to have opening acts for the show, they gave me a list of people, and Rosie O’Donnell was one of them. I said, “I don’t really need any opening acts. I have funny stuff in the show, and I do a lot of comedy and stuff.” There was another guy suggested. He was a tall and dark-haired and Jewy, and I said, “No, he’s too close to me.” It ended up being Jerry Seinfeld. [Apatow laughs] So.

APATOW: Who knew that you guys were so similar?

COPPERFIELD: That’s what I thought at the moment in my narrow vision.

APATOW: It seems like magic is something kids start really young. With comedy, a lot of people develop their sense of humor as a defense mechanism. Most comedians weren’t great athletes; that was the way they got noticed in high school. Is it the same with magic? Because it’s something that takes an enormous amount of time to learn how to do. It’s probably very solitary.

COPPERFIELD: I think about this a lot. In your book, you talk about your personal story, about being on the baseball field and not being the first one picked and kind of feeling trapped in that, and I think every kid needs a way to shine or communicate in their own way. And if you’re not a great athlete, what is it? What’s the thing? Can I sing? No. Can I do comedy? Maybe. Magic certainly fits into the category of “What will get the beautiful wife or girlfriend?” How can you figure out how to shine? Magic was a thing that, when I did it, it made all the kids go, “Ah, that’s cool.” Actually, I started as a ventriloquist and my music teacher said, “Why don’t you emcee the talent show?” My act was out of the back of Boys’ Life magazine-they had a whole series of jokes in the back of Boys’ Life magazine for Boy Scouts. So my act was jokes with my ventriloquist figure, and it was really bad, but I walked into the classroom afterward and the kids went, “Wow, you’re cool.” I wasn’t cool at all, but I thought, “Well, this is a pretty good deal.” They kind of liked what I did, and as I did more of that, I realized, “Well, maybe I should do more magic.” I fell in love with magic acts and bridged into that. Reading your book, about your background, I think there’s a great similarity. What gives you the fire to work hard? You worked hard, researching the comedians of the time, what touched you about it. For me, I was watching Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Orson Welles, Victor Fleming movies, and I said, “I want to tell stories like that. I want to move people like that. But I’m good at magic, so what am I going to do?” So I started using magic for the right reasons—to get the girl.

APATOW: The magic world has changed a lot since you started, but what was the magic community like when you first were getting into it?

COPPERFIELD: It wasn’t that accepting. There was a place in New York called Tannen’s Magic. It still exists. But back in the day, it was really fantastic. You’d go into the old Wurlitzer Building, take the elevator to the 13th floor, which was labeled 14, because of bad luck, the elevator would open, and you’d be in heaven. It was all of these guys doing magic stuff with props. It’s kind of gone now, that experience, the brick-and-mortar magic shop, but you really felt like you’d landed in the most amazing place in the world. Everything that you’d see on The Ed Sullivan Show was there. You’d think that if you could afford a trick like Doc Nixon’s Dove Vanish, then you could be on The Ed Sullivan Show as an 8-year-old kid. And then you’d go in the magic shop, and you’d walk up to the magicians doing stuff, and they’d turn their back on you. “Oh my gosh, I wish they would accept me.” It really lit a fire. I really wanted to succeed. I wanted to be accepted. I read every magic book that I possibly could, studied every move, and by the time I was 12, they really accepted me, they embraced me. But I think the negative reinforcement really helped me in my very beginnings.

APATOW: At 12! They saw how obsessed you were and how seriously you took it, and, of course, who would accept an 11-year-old magician?

COPPERFIELD: [laughs] I had a point of view, which was different. I looked at magic as theater, as storytelling, and I tried to have an approach that was different from what they were doing. “How can I move people and really get them to dream with a card trick, with coin magic, or even a piece of stage magic?” With your story, working so hard to get acceptance, bringing coffee to the right people to try to get acceptance—it was the exact same thing.

APATOW: Were there specific magicians who took you under their wing and taught you?

COPPERFIELD: There was a guy named Ed Mishell. He was this grandfatherly guy who did all the illustrations for the catalogs and reviewed magic effects for the magic magazines, so all of the magic dealers would send him magic effects for free-it was a great deal. His basement was full of this stuff. He took me under his wing, and he would sneak me into the Society of American Magicians meetings in New York. It’s the world’s oldest magic organization. And, back in the day, Houdini was president of the society for nine years. There were really a bunch of old, old magic hobbyists at the time, some of them who actually had known Houdini. You had to be 14 to go to these meetings, and he snuck me in at 12. It was glorious. I was kind of the mascot. And a few years later, when I was still going to these meetings, I was also “second-acting” every Broadway show [walking in with the crowd after intermission]. I snuck in to see Grease with John Travolta in kind of a secondary part and Adrienne Barbeau playing Rizzo, into Pippin, hung out with Ben Vereen and Bob Fosse. It was an amazing time for a teenager.

APATOW: What did you learn from Fosse?

COPPERFIELD: Well, if you ever saw All That Jazz [1979], he was kind of raised dancing in strip joints and the whole era of burlesque, and that form ran his visual aesthetic, the pacing and rhythm of what he did. Pippin had an opening number called “Magic to Do,” and Jules Fisher, the brilliant lighting designer lit it. Tony Walton did all of the sets. As a kid I thought, “Wow, I’m seeing onstage what a MGM musical would look like live.” It was that good, and it was directed by Bob Fosse. I saw it hundreds of times. So I said to them, “Maybe I can help you guys out.” I was 16 at the time, and I came backstage and started hanging out with them. I said, “Well, maybe you can ‘vanish’ the silk this way.” The opening was a black stage while the “Magic to Do” song started playing. All you saw were hands, lit by Jules Fisher, and then Ben Vereen would appear beyond the hands, and at the end of the scene he would vanish a silk. The spotlight would hit a red spot on the floor where you’d see the silk on the floor. He’d pull the silk out of the floor and it became the entire set coming out of the floor.

APATOW: Wow.

COPPERFIELD: That was it for me. It was as great and moving, and, you know, all of the Fosse-esque movements and point of view informed years and years of what I would do.

APATOW: It’s amazing that people like that were open to the creative ideas of a high school kid.

COPPERFIELD: Maybe they were just being polite. [both laugh] But I could vanish the silk better than Ben Vereen—that was for sure. So I think maybe they said, “Okay, maybe he has something to offer.” Years pass and I get a bit of a career, and Ben Vereen ends up hosting one of my specials where I walked through the Great Wall of China. Things came full circle in kind of an ironic way, when you have that honor of people that have influenced you so much host your show. It’s a huge experience in your life.

APATOW: Oh yeah. I was a guest on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld, and I interviewed him when I was 15 years old-those moments really blow your mind.

COPPERFIELD: But your life is full of moments like that.

APATOW: It’s so funny, all the similarities that we have of being obsessed young people and finding a way to be around the people doing what we want to do.

COPPERFIELD: Do you think back to that time when you see kids with talent?

APATOW: Yeah. It’s an interesting thing because I used to bug all of the comedians for interviews, and when people want to talk to me, sometimes I’m very receptive and sometimes I say no. Sometimes if I say no, I think, “If they’re smart, they’ll figure out how to not accept this no.”

COPPERFIELD: I think that’s right. In my beginnings, those nos were ever-present-even today, those nos are ever-present-and it’s the workaround. I always found a workaround for people who turned their back to me. It’s a way of being persistent that makes them take notice.

APATOW: I always thought it was important to overdeliver, and when I got one of my first jobs, writing jokes for Garry Shandling when he was hosting the Grammys, I stayed up all night and wrote a hundred jokes, and I thought, “I’m always going to be the person that gives them more than they requested, and that’s why they’ll want to keep me around.”

COPPERFIELD: I also love your story about how you had a friend rewrite your notes of interviews just because you preferred his handwriting. That’s very important to me as well: presentation and how people perceive you, the visual of how things look, your posture. I learned that from Fosse and Jerome Robbins, from all the great theater directors and the Busby Berkeleys. You overdeliver: visually, emotionally.

APATOW: Well, with magic, a lot of it is to inspire and dazzle people, but with stand-up comedy, a lot of it is complaining. Just bitching. There’s a lot of pain being expressed and frustration with how the world works. And I wonder what the differences are between magicians and comedians. “I want to blow people’s minds” is different from “I want to make them laugh and think about how fucked up things are, to complain and console each other about the things we’re frustrated about.”

COPPERFIELD: I’m trying to think if there was ever the Lenny Bruce-y, observational, George Carlin kind of magician: “You know what I hate is …” I don’t think that ever existed. I don’t think there’s really observational magic. In my work, there is a lot of storytelling. The storytelling is not a new thing. Back in the Thurston days, the Houdini days, the Blackstone days, it was stories, but the stories were, “We’re going to the Egyptian temples, and we’re going to vanish the Prince of Thebes,” and, “On my last trip to the Orient …” I said, “Wait, what are my idols doing that doesn’t exist in magic?” Any music star would be singing about his lost love. A movie would be about a relatable incident; it wasn’t an untouchable magic dragon box. It was something that people could relate to, and when I vanished a girl, it would be a story about a girl that left me, or a cutting into pieces would be a date with a magician. I wouldn’t just vanish a girl in a shower, I would do the shower scene from Psycho [1960] with a Hitchcock cameo.

APATOW: Comedians are a little bit like a tribe. Do magicians like one other?

COPPERFIELD: Literally, my last call was with David Blaine, congratulating him on his show. I have a camaraderie with David. Penn and Teller and I get along very well. We can call each other and say, “I’m working on this classic effect. Please, I’d like to do it for a while.” We’ll all respect it. There are people we don’t get along with, but mostly there is a respect amongst the group. Like in comedy, you know the names of the people who steal things that others work really hard on. It really sucks. And, in magic, it’s not just the hard work of getting the words and attitude and point of view right; you’re taking an actual invention, making something over three or four years, and somebody can just take it.

APATOW: You do so many shows a week; it just seems so physically challenging. What keeps you excited and engaged at this point, given you’ve had so much success and it’s such a hard job?

COPPERFIELD: Can I ask you that question first and then I’ll have an answer? What makes it worth it for you?

APATOW: Well, every joke is an experiment. When you sit, alone, and write a script, or just a joke, you really have no idea if it will succeed. You can work on a movie for years, and you won’t know until you show it to an audience for the first time if it makes any sense to them at all, if they’re touched, if they find it funny, so it’s endlessly exciting, because failure is just right there all the time, and your chances of success don’t rise that much based on the fact that you succeeded last time. Nobody’s going to like my next movie because they liked Trainwreck [2015]. It has to work on its own, and that keeps it really scary. And in the writing, I’m just trying to go deeper, emotionally, and learn more about myself and reveal more and find a way to connect with people in new ways. I always feel like I’m very far from my potential.

COPPERFIELD: If you could see through the phone, I’m smiling from ear to ear listening to this, because I talk about this very thing. You know, there was an old brochure for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts with a quote from Robert Redford or someone, that said, “You’re only as good as you dare to be bad.” And for me, it’s about risk taking, taking things in new directions. Because every single time, no matter how much you learn, you can never say, “Okay, I did the hardest thing I ever did. I’m prepared now. Now it’s going to be easy.” Of course it’s not easy. I’m inventing new principles. The audience has a point of view that no one can predict. Yes, the more educated you get, the better shot you have to get it right, but if you’re really trying something different, it’s a challenge every time. I’m a big fan of the Pixar movies, and Ed Catmull, who wrote a book about his experiences producing them, talks about how it takes three or four years to get it right. How do you make it suck less? [laughs] Those are his words. I call it glorious torture. And I’m trying to change theater, in my own way—not just magic. I say that humbly, because I’m learning every single day. I do 15 shows a week, and every single audience I have is like a test screening for you, when you listen and go, “Really? They laughed at that?” All over the stage I have lines, written onstage, that I’m changing every single day.

APATOW: If you’re an athlete, you might work your entire life, and you win the Super Bowl once, if you’re lucky. And I feel like in the arts and entertainment we win the Super Bowl all the time. You do something with the Great Wall of China; you do something with the Statue of Liberty, or maybe it’s just a great show, or meeting one of your heroes—we’re having all these heightened experiences and really positive moments. What are the moments at the top of your list?

COPPERFIELD: They kind of run together. The things that I remember most are the things that surprised me, that were unexpected. Thirty years ago, when I was doing specials, it was all about getting the story right and getting the combination of magic and theater to work. Some of it was great, some of it not so good. For one of my specials, I said, “I’m going to make an airplane disappear.” Okay! And the next day, everything went crazy—it was like breaking the internet before the internet. Everyone was talking about having airplanes disappear. And I said, “Wait, wait, wait. That’s what you like? I’d tell you a story about something like my girlfriend leaving me, and the magic was really hard. The airplane thing was comparatively easy, and people liked that thing?” I realized at that moment, the power of the simple idea. A simple concept, from a brand new standpoint, really resonates. So then I said, “Now the Statue of Liberty is going to disappear, but I’ve got to make this have more meaning.” So I went to visit Frank Capra, one of my idols, and did a kind of Judd Apatow interview with him. I said, “I’d like the Statue of Liberty to disappear, but I want to do it as a lesson in freedom, how valuable freedom is and what the world would be like without liberty.” And Frank Capra looked at me and said, “David, I love your idea, but here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to try and it’s not going to work; it’s not going to disappear.” And I said, “Mr. Capra, I can’t do that.” You know? [laughs] And I got to watch Frank Capra, in his eighties, in action. You read all the stories about Frank Capra fighting with the head of Columbia, Harry Cohn, “It’s my way or the highway.” I got to watch that. He lambasted me, “You cannot do this. You will fail.” Finally, after another hour of conversation, I convinced him to help me write the speech.

APATOW: So many people are in comedy because of difficult mothers or broken homes, and it seems like your mom was such an inspiration to you.

COPPERFIELD: My mother was really loving and wonderful and tough as hell. My father wanted to be an actor, dreamed about being an actor, but he gave it up because my mom and his family told him, “You’re never going to make it; it’s too tough out there.” He gave up his dream and became a haberdasher with a men’s clothing store, Korby’s Men’s Shop, in New Jersey. And when I started doing magic as a kid, my parents had no problem. I was teaching magic at NYU when I was 16. I was published in Tarbell Course in Magic when I was 12. I invented magic stuff; it came very easily. Now, I sucked at everything else, but I was good at magic as a kid. But when the time came to say, “Mom, I want to do this as a job,” it was brutal. She was really against it. There were screaming matches. Some people are shut down by that and get defeated by it, and other people are empowered by the negativity. My father kind of encouraged me through that.

APATOW: You were living his dream!

COPPERFIELD: Exactly, not as an actor, obviously, but as someone in show business that had some success. He told me to live the impossible. “Live the impossible!” Later on, towards the end of their lives, I thanked her. I said, “Mom, you were really tough.” She said, “I wasn’t tough! I always believed in you.” To make them happy, I went to Fordham University for three weeks, while at the same time running ads in Variety, “magician-actor David Copperfield.” I had changed my name, and three weeks into my Fordham experience, I got a call from the producers of Grease in Chicago. “We have a musical comedy that we want you to be in. Can you audition for us?” I can’t sing, but I went to the Shubert Theatre, where they had a show called Over Here! with Patty and Maxene Andrews and a young John Travolta. I walked on the stage after the show and sang “Wives and Lovers,” which was the Jack Jones song: “Hey, little girl / Comb your hair, fix your makeup …” I sang that and floated a cane, and from the audience, they go, “You’re hired!” And they took me to Chicago at 18 to star in a show that ran for almost a year. And that’s when my parents said, “Okay, I guess you can quit Fordham.” Of course, when that show closed, as you can imagine, I came to New York and starved for years, but it’s never an easy road.

APATOW: Did your parents get to see a lot of your success?

COPPERFIELD: They did. They traveled the world and got to meet four U.S. presidents. They were there for a lot of really great moments.

APATOW: Wow. And what is your relationship to your audience?

COPPERFIELD: I wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times last year about the amazing effect of shared wonder—how I have an audience filled with people who you’d think would hate each other, people from every religious category, all at the same show at the same time. And it’s an amazing phenomenon to watch this shared sense of wonder, where these people who really don’t like each other—for good and bad reasons, reasons that make sense and that don’t make sense—are in the same room, experiencing this unification. I’m so lucky to experience this, because I see people’s need to dream, people’s need to escape—you see it! That’s why people come to comedy shows, that’s why they come to your movies … We’re so needed in this world. Not as much as medicine [laughs], but to dream for a while.

APATOW: Sometimes a story idea will come to me, and suddenly I’ve figured out the whole thing, and I feel like I’m collaborating with something other than myself. People talk about universal intelligence … I’m reticent to believe almost anything, just because my parents weren’t religious at all, but that’s when I feel it. People talk about being in the “flow.” I was listening to Tommy Chong talking about how he feels like there is like a creative flow happening and how certain people just know how to hook into the pipe …

COPPERFIELD: Tommy Chong connects to the pipe a lot.

APATOW: Exactly! [laughs] But he played music with Jimi Hendrix and felt that he was personally connected to some higher intelligence or creativity. Are you a practicing Jew? Are you religious?

COPPERFIELD: No. I’m really happy that I had the foundations of knowing where I came from. Do I practice? No. But talking about those moments where you kind of tingle, I was working on an escape from a volcano. I was going to float out of a volcano-

APATOW: Only you can say that to somebody.

COPPERFIELD: [laughs] Even I laugh at the idea. So as I’m thinking about that, I go home and I’m taken by the technology, how I was going to do it. I’m walking around and something inside me said, “You know something? It’s not an escape from a volcano; it’s going to be flying. I’m going to fly.” That was the closest thing to what you just described: “Okay, now I’m on the right track.”

APATOW: I wonder, as a magician, do you have a sense that there’s more going on in the world, in the universe? Or less, because you understand how everything works?

COPPERFIELD: Well, you lose your sense of wonder the more you learn, right? When you go to film school and learn about moviemaking, you go to see movies and then only see where the lights are, where the cuts are, watching it from a technical basis, nodding your head, “Oh, that was good.” The feeling of surprise, the feeling of being transported is further away. Then suddenly something will amaze you, and even if it’s for a moment, it will give you that sense of “Oh, I remember that feeling!” I have a bunch of islands in the Bahamas that we made into this amazing, magical place. And we have these birds; they’re trained to do certain things on the island, which is awesome. These toucans had a baby toucan, and the baby toucan, every hour that you’d look at this toucan, he would change. Literally, he’d be this naked Mr. Bigglesworth kind of skin bird, and an hour later, these rods would appear out of its arms and a few hours later again the rods would become longer out of his arms. And then the rods would open up and then become feathers. It was like incredible! It was like, “Really?! Something can transform that quickly? Well, maybe God exists.”

JUDD APATOW IS A COMEDY WRITER, PRODUCER, DIRECTOR, AND THE FOUNDER OF APATOW PRODUCTIONS. HIS BOOK SICK IN THE HEAD: CONVERSATIONS ABOUT LIFE IN COMEDY WAS RELEASED IN 2015.