Sitting in his very own multimillion-dollar Las Vegas museum of magic, Variety’s Billion Dollar Illusionist David Copperfield seems remarkably relaxed for a guy who has to make an automobile disappear in front of a paying crowd at the MGM Grand later in the evening.
Maybe it’s the time he’s spent at the top of the illusionist game, or the $4 billion he’s grossed along the way, or the fact that the famously no b.s. fellow magician Penn Jillette calls him “certainly, indisputably the greatest magician alive.”
Though he’s just turned 57 this month, consider how long he has been making magic:
The source of Las Vegas’ Cirque du Soleil “Love” show, the Beatles, were working on “The White Album” and fellow Las Vegas illusionist David Blaine was five years away from making his first appearance on earth when Copperfield became the youngest person ever admitted to the Society of American Magicians.
He was 12.
At 16 he was teaching magic at NYU.
At 21 he began a string of national TV specials that ran for decades and racked up nearly two dozen Emmys.
According to those who’ve worked with him, even back in those early days, Copperfield’s always been focused, calm and the master of his own domain.
Writer-director Norman Gerard remembers working with Copperfield on commercials for Burger King when the magician was still in his early 20s and describes him as “all business all the time and completely in control of every detail of his act and his business.”
Today Copperfield essentially four-walls his MGM Grand show. “I control my business. It’s my money.” Virtually everyone you talk to in Vegas confirms that assessment.
MGM Grand president Scott Sibella seems to have no problem with Copperfield’s deal. Obviously happy to have him drawing hotel guests and casino patrons for the past decade, Sibella extolls him as “the preeminent magician in entertainment today” and “part of our extended family.”
Still packing in crowds most weeks two shows a night to the tune of an estimated $30 million a year, a less-driven entertainer might figure it’s time to retire and rest on his laurels. For Copperfield, his partner Chloe Gosselin and their infant daughter Sky, the option would appear simple: the Bahamian islands Copperfield purchased many years ago.
But look into his eyes: they say, “ain’t gonna happen.”
In Copperfield’s view, making movies is not a transition but something akin to realizing a childhood dream and a parallel form of magicmaking. “Cinema is a magic effect,” says Copperfield, whose study of the histories of both film and magic led to the creation of his museum. “The movies started as a trick. It was a trip to the moon, a journey to Hades. The illusion of the cinema became the medium. That’s why we are here talking.”
Just as he might tell an audience he’s going to walk through the Great Wall of China (which he’s done), Copperfield explains how he plans to make movies that rank with Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers.
“My real love as a kid was sitting in a darkened theater and watching films by Victor Fleming, Orson Welles, Frank Capra, Walt Disney,” Copperfield says. “So in a way, where I am today is where I have always been. I was good at magic but when I saw those movies I said, ‘I want that.’ ”
“That” in Copperfield’s view, is the emotional connection that is at the heart of all great storytelling, on stage or on film. That vintage automobile appearance/disappearance that is a classic showstopper is also a heart-tugger as it serves to tell the story of the former David Kotkin’s father and grandfather and its message of “pursue your dreams” resonates long after the stunt is over.
“Emotionally, where the audience is going is what the camera is doing,” he says. “On screen, it’s always about the story. ‘Raging Bull’ is not about the punches, it’s about the story.”
While the magic biz is still booming for Copperfield, he clearly has a desire to achieve more. You can hear it in his voice when he recites his greatest hits.
“I vanished an airplane and the fast food of it worked. So I said, ‘Next?’ And I vanished the Statue of Liberty. Maybe people will only remember it as a stunt, but I want everything I do to have more depth, to resonate as metaphor. I have always wanted everything I do to have some gravitas. The story should have substance and not just be a stunt.”
Like many of Copperfield’s famed misdirection ploys, it appears that while such Hollywood hits as Paramount’s “Paranormal Activity” and Summit’s “Now You See Me” haven’t trumpeted his involvement, his consulting work for those films and others has earned respect from the filmmakers, including Paramount film group president Adam Goodman, who calls Copperfield’s assistance on “Paranormal” invaluable.
“Paranormal” producer Jason Blum echoes that sentiment, crediting Copperfield with “a unique take on movies and the filmmaking process” and notes their continuing partnership on “a variety of other projects we have been working on together, like our upcoming Halloween live event ‘The Purge: Fear the Night.’ ”
But creativity and passion aside, it is called the movie business and Copperfield has no illusions about the challenges he faces and the lack of autonomy he’ll have to confront.
“I’ve spent years watching others go through the challenges of production and distribution,” says Copperfield, observing that he “had to see the whole picture” before making the plunge into the deep financial waters of modern filmmaking. The reported negative cost on “Now You See Me” was $75 million and marketing costs could easily double that number, which isn’t bad when measured against the pic’s $320 million global B.O. take.
But then there’s “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” another film Copperfield consulted on and in which he appeared in a cameo, which cost $30 million and but only earned $22 million domestic. In other words, there can be a big upside but there’s also no faster way to make money vanish into thin air than making movies.
Still, Copperfield has been tackling big projects all his life and seems to especially relish the small details that make up the creative side of filmmaking. “I love to get the call to help on story points,” says Copperfield, recalling that on “Now You See Me,” “I told Louis (Leterrier, the director), ‘Tell me the entire story, scene by scene.’ My process on creating magic parallels the process of making movies. Besides, the way I see it, I’m in the movie business when I’m on stage.”
Judging by friends and fans in high places, Copperfield’s Red Safe will find a small army of eager and willing partners, including Goodman, who calls Copperfield “a born storyteller. My hope is that we can figure out a movie to do together.”
– Knighted by the French government
– Declared a Living Legend by the Library of Congress
– Dubbed the King of Magic by the Society of American Magicians
– Named Magician of the Year, Magician of the Century, and Magician of the Millennium
First: Living magician to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Most: Broadway tickets sold in a week (more than “Cats,” “The Lion King” and “The Producers”)
Most: Awards received by a magician (Magician of the Year, Magician of the Century and Magician of the Millennium)
Highest: Grossing solo entertainer in history (more than Madonna, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley)
By the Numbers
6 Countries that have postage stamps branded with his face
11 Guinness World Records
13 Years performing at MGM Grand
15 Shows per week
20 TV specials
21 Emmy Awards and 38 noms