When I call David Copperfield a legend as we talk from separate coasts over Zoom, he laughs and humbly responds, “I’m still here!” Sure, he’s considered the world’s most commercially successful magician with a career spanning more than forty years, during which he has won twenty-one Emmy Awards for his television specials, earned eleven Guinness World Records, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a knighthood by the French government. Yet Copperfield is always moving forward. “I don’t want to be someone that does one great thing and be done,” he says.
When he was a kid, his parents would take him from New Jersey to Las Vegas, where he says there were only about six magic shows to go see. Now, Sin City has over 200 shows on offer, including Copperfield’s residency at the MGM Grand, where he’s back to doing shows every evening post-pandemic. “I do 640 shows a year—two shows every night and three shows on Saturdays. I have no days off, but I take ten weeks off a year,” he says. “My audience is people of all ages, cultures, nationalities, and political beliefs. They all need to be transported. There’s a need to dream even more so than before, and it’s palpable. You can see it in their faces.”
Simply pulling a rabbit out of a hat has never really been Copperfield’s thing. Magic has always come easy to him, even at an early age, but that was never enough. Like the artists that inspire him, including Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Barbra Streisand, and Bob Fosse, Copperfield is a true performer and storyteller. In fact, there just weren’t many magicians as great as the icons he looked up to. “Nobody was Charlie Chaplin, Sinatra, or Streisand-great in magic,” he says. “The commonality of those people was that they could do more than just sing or dance, and you cared about them as people. In Sinatra’s case, it wasn’t just his music, it was his presence and the stories he told on stage that shared who he was. And Streisand would write, act, and direct on top of her singing, which was the best thing. So as a magician, I got to work!”
It’s safe to say Copperfield is now a bonafide legend, having literally been named a Living Legend by the US Library of Congress. He’s also currently writing a book on the history of magic, which will be released later this year. We spoke about his Las Vegas residency, whether he’ll ever reveal his secrets, and how magic has changed in these modern times.
Andrew Nguyen: What makes your show so unique?
David Copperfield: I’m doing what I’m known for: spectacular magic. It’s a universal sharing of wonder that can really unite people. In the past I’ve taken iconic landmarks like the Statue of Liberty, the Great Wall of China, and the Grand Canyon and incorporated them into my work. But on stage, I’m trying to change the language of magic and what you normally think of a magician doing by creating stories that are extremely relatable—not card tricks and sawing-in-half illusions. My show is very personal. There’s a dinosaur, for instance. As a child, I dreamed about dinosaurs being giant and imagined myself in that world. The end result, making [a dinosaur] appear out of nowhere, means finally fulfilling something that I lost: my childhood. A spaceship will also appear, intertwined with a story about my childhood dream of reuniting with my father. It’s about my roots, the loss of my parents, and the importance of family. At the end of the day, if you connect with something that’s important to you, hang on to that and what created you in the first place.
AN: Where do you see yourself on the timeline of the history of magicians?
DC: When it comes to television, there was a magic historian named Milbourne Christopher on TV in the ’50s. After him came Mark Wilson, who had a show called The Magic Land of Allakazam when I was a kid. Then there was Doug Henning—a big Broadway star who did magic on stage and had a bunch of TV specials. Doug Henning opened the door, and I walked through it. I got discovered by the producer, Joseph Cates, who put me on TV because I had a unique point of view, which was storytelling. I did it for over twenty years, performing on tour and shooting specials. I owe a lot to the people that came before me.
AN: One day, will you reveal all of the secrets to your tricks?
DC: All forty years of my secrets have been etched very small onto nickel discs, and they’re now on the moon. It’s an incredible feeling to walk outside, look up at the moon, and know that something I created is literally on it.
AN: How has magic and the magician evolved in tune with technological and sociopolitical changes?
DC: There’s the internet and all this information that’s available to us, which is good but also bad. In magic, there’s a lot of exposure of secrets. It’s about attention and clicks, showing how all these great illusions work, which demystifies a lot of magic. It motivates me to keep working and moving forward because you can’t do the same thing as the secrets are being revealed. On the other hand, there’s so many magicians who are willing to share their work with young magicians. During the ’60s and ’70s, you’d have to put in a lot of work to convince an older magician to teach you. Now, learning is clicks away. Accessibility, as far as learning and sharing art with each other goes, is positive.
In all fields there should be diversity. Everybody should be accepted, respected, listened to, and have the tools to grow, because we’re all better for it. For some reason, when people think of a magician, they think of a dude, but there’s all these talented women magicians who are really great. Some are winning America’s Got Talent. The future of magic has many talented, young magicians out there who are finding their way and new ways of doing it.
AN: What’s next for you?
DC: You only really succeed if you keep moving forward. I’ve made many transitions throughout my career, from making the magic about MGM musicals and then MTV culture to family and my roots. You keep changing and trying to be aware of what’s happening around you. At the end of the day, you hope that you’ve made an important mark. But in my own brain, I’m just beginning. I’m always asking myself, What can I do to make a difference?
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