David Copperfield: The Magic Behind the True Superhero

When David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty vanish on television in April 1983, Americans gasped. The 305-foot, 62,000-pound statue disappeared before a live audience in a magical trick recorded by the Guinness Book of Records as the Largest Illusion Ever Staged.

David Copperfield: True Superhero
True Superhero David Copperfield has been awarded 11 Guinness Records


David Copperfield's behind-the-scenes magic

What fans didn’t know was that the magician had worked diligently behind the scenes to pull off the prime-time event with the help of filmmaker Frank Capra. Initially, the producer of It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, wanted no part of David Copperfield’s idea, adamant that ‘liberty’ could not be seen to disappear in the US.

"I spent four hours with him trying to convince [Capra] that it's about the fragility of freedom, that we have to vanish the Statue of Liberty to kind of show symbolically how we can take it for granted too much," David Copperfield later said. At the time, the US was still in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and liberty and freedom were at risk.

The US government granted permission for the disappearing act - but only for a few minutes - and Capra eventually relented, helping the magician write the story around the spectacular event that left fans astonished for decades. (The secret behind the illusion was finally revealed in 2016.)


David Copperfield: The Magic Behind the True Superhero

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When David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty vanish on television in April 1983, Americans gasped. The 305-foot, 62,000-pound statue disappeared before a live audience in a magical trick recorded by the Guinness Book of Records as the Largest Illusion Ever Staged.

David Copperfield: True Superhero
True Superhero David Copperfield has been awarded 11 Guinness Records


David Copperfield's behind-the-scenes magic

What fans didn’t know was that the magician had worked diligently behind the scenes to pull off the prime-time event with the help of filmmaker Frank Capra. Initially, the producer of It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, wanted no part of David Copperfield’s idea, adamant that ‘liberty’ could not be seen to disappear in the US.

"I spent four hours with him trying to convince [Capra] that it's about the fragility of freedom, that we have to vanish the Statue of Liberty to kind of show symbolically how we can take it for granted too much," David Copperfield later said. At the time, the US was still in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and liberty and freedom were at risk.

The US government granted permission for the disappearing act - but only for a few minutes - and Capra eventually relented, helping the magician write the story around the spectacular event that left fans astonished for decades. (The secret behind the illusion was finally revealed in 2016.)


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David Copperfield: The Making of a True Superhero

In many ways, the Statue of Liberty illusion is a metaphor for David Copperfield’s life. The committed philanthropist appears to have led a magical existence yet he has struggled to overcome serious obstacles behind the scenes.

David Copperfield has been accused of crimes - which he fully denies - but hasn’t been charged or convicted (in one case, his accuser was charged). He’s also been sued multiple times and ordered to reveal one of his most famous magic tricks, and he’s come close to dying for his art on stage. Now, years later, David has started revealing his personal struggles and secrets as he unveils charity initiatives like Project Magic which helps people with disabilities.

David Copperfield: True Superhero
Davino the Boy Magician

Born David Seth Kotkin in Metuchen, New Jersey in 1956, his first love was ventriloquism but - by his own admission - David was incredibly bad. ‘Davino the Boy Magician’ then started practicing at age 10 and two years later became the youngest person admitted to the Society of American Magicians. 

“When I was a kid, I didn’t think I fit in at all. I was an only child and I lived in these apartments where there weren’t any other kids my own age, so I’d sit outside by myself and I’d dream,” David said. 

His shy nature and dental problems made him insecure. At 16, however, he was teaching magic at New York University and by 21 had become a musical theater and TV star. 

David Copperfield: True Superhero
David holds the Guinness Record for most tickets sold by a solo performer - more than Elvis

Overcoming obstacles 

On paper, at least, David Copperfield’s rise was meteoric but there were struggles along the way. His mother Rebecca, an insurance adjuster, wasn’t keen on her son pursuing a career in magic. Hers was a classic immigrant story: she immigrated from Israel at the age of five and arrived in New York where she first saw the Statue of Liberty. Her family succeeded. She wanted the same for her son. Magic and ventriloquism wouldn’t cut it. 

“She was afraid I wouldn’t be able to feed my family,” Copperfield told Barrons. “But it made me stronger. Where else in the world can you be fortunate enough to have a career in a business that’s off the beaten track?... America provides that window of opportunity.”

 

Broadway and beyond

David spent much of his free time at Tannen’s Magic, the century-old New York City shop where he found friends amid like-minded magicians. When he landed the lead role in The Magic Man, a Chicago musical, he took the stage name ‘David Copperfield’ after the Charles Dickens character. (He’d later regret the choice, as he reportedly now considers Dickens anti-Semitic.)

David Copperfield was by far the world’s most famous magician by the age of 30 and it seemed he’d peaked - yet he continued blazing a trail with shows in Las Vegas.

Copperfield had more than a dozen TV specials to his credit by the early 2000s, a period when he also performed his most famous illusions - vanishing a Lear jet; levitating over the Grand Canyon; walking through the Great Wall of China; escaping from Alcatraz, and; making an Orient Express railway carriage disappear.

 

Superhero magic and controversy 

Being a public figure has had benefits and drawbacks, including occupational injuries.

While rehearsing ‘Escape From Death’ in 1984, David was shackled and handcuffed in a tank of water. He was tangled in chains, however, and finally pulled out after 80 seconds in a state of shock. David was hospitalized and treated for pulled tendons and abrasions that left him in a wheelchair for two weeks and hobbling on a cane afterward.

During a Florida tour, David and his assistants were robbed at gunpoint after a show. Copperfield turned his pockets inside out to show they were empty - a sleight of hand as he was carrying a cell phone, wallet, and passport.

Working as part of a tight-knit team, traveling, and living in close proximity creates tight bonds and sometimes leads to heartache. David’s long-term artistic director, Joanie Spina, died after complications from cancer and pulmonary fibrosis in 2014 at the age of 61. Before her death, she publicly thanked David Copperfield for his spiritual and financial assistance, saying he ‘stepped up’ and delivered ‘big time’. It certainly isn’t the only time David has helped others.


The philanthropy of a True Superhero

Like everything in his life, David Copperfield’s philanthropy and good works have been a bit magical. He’s fundraised for the children’s charity Unicef - first by sawing Jennifer Lopez into pieces and years later, in 2007, by organizing and performing at a celebrity charity show for Unicef in Los Angeles.

After Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in 2019, he led the Bahamas Relief efforts and used his own plane to fly in supplies. He rented a home for a year for a boy who was stabbed at age 11 so the family could get back on their feet, and he has also supported Children's Medical Research Institute, Jeans for Genes, animal charity spcaLA, and many more.

David Copperwork’s work with disabled patients, however, is likely to be his lasting legacy. In the late 1970s, he began receiving letters from an aspiring young magician. Due to the childlike handwriting, he assumed the letters were from a young boy. In fact, the fan was in his 20s and wheelchair-bound. His handwriting was a result of his disability, yet he was still able to perform sleight-of-hand magic. 

This led David to research the medical problem and possible solutions. In 1982, he set up Project Magic, a rehabilitation program to help disabled patients regain lost or damaged dexterity skills by using sleight of hand. It was endorsed by the American Occupational Therapy Association and is now used in more than 1,100 hospitals in 30 countries.

David Copperfield's World Of Magic
Guyana's David Copperfied stamps

True Superhero

David Copperfield has been awarded an incredible 11 Guinness World Records including the record for most tickets sold by a solo performer - more than Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, or even Elvis. He’s been knighted by the French government and he’s won 21 Emmy Awards. He even has his own postage stamps in six countries.

David has also opened a museum of magic on the outskirts of Las Vegas which houses his private collection and mementos including many of Harry Houdini’s props. It’s not a profit-making venture, however. It's open to scholars and historians of magic, in keeping with his goal of inspiring a new generation of magicians. Inside, David has recreated Tannen’s Magic shop where he was mentored at the beginning of his career in New York City.

“People get very emotional when they come in here. They see this. It's a part of the world that was very, very important - you know, the camaraderie and the association with artists and the mentorship that existed in the brick-and-mortar magic shop.”

In a world of illusion and make-believe, it’s also a solid reminder of the lasting legacy David Copperfield has built. 

David Copperfield True Superhero
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