9 of David Copperfield’s Most Memorable Illusions
Born in New Jersey in 1956, David Copperfield has been surprising and entertaining audiences with his illusions for decades. To celebrate his 60th birthday, we're taking a look at his best stunts, from making the Statue of Liberty disappear to walking through the Great Wall of China. Without further ado, prepare to be amazed by nine of Copperfield’s most memorable illusions.
1. SURVIVING NIAGARA FALLS
In a 1990 TV special, Copperfield has his arms and legs chained and his body restrained in a yellow raft. After being locked in, a fire blazes underneath him, and he's dropped into the water above Niagara Falls. In this nail-biting stunt, Copperfield has less than 60 seconds to escape (via a Jet Ski attached to the raft contraption) before falling over the edge of the rapids. His raft does fall over, but a minute later, we see him alive and well, dangling from a helicopter’s rope. Reflecting on the stunt, Copperfield told the Las Vegas Sun that he feared for his life while preparing. "I remember going to my hotel room every night and dreaming about how I was going to die. It was really, really horrible," he said.
2. WALKING THROUGH THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA
In a 1986 TV special, Copperfield appears to travel through the Great Wall of China, walking into one wall and out the other side a few minutes later. As crowds on each side of (and above) the wall watch the illusionist's silhouette inside a lighted box, he appears to enter the wall, in a Harry Potter platform nine and three-quarters style. He then exits on the other side of the wall. And to add a healthy dose of drama, the audience can hear Copperfield's heartbeat via a heart monitor, which flatlines moments before he comes out of the wall.
3. ESCAPING FROM ALCATRAZ
In 1987, Copperfield traveled to San Francisco to escape from Alcatraz prison, the former maximum-security federal penitentiary once considered to be one of the most secure prisons in the world. With dramatic music playing, he stands behind bars (wearing a straitjacket, naturally) with two minutes and 30 seconds until the first planned detonation. After getting out of the straitjacket, he turns three coins into a tool to pick the lock of a cell door, conjures a cat out of a box to distract guard dogs, and escapes via helicopter, wearing a police uniform, and cradling his feline accomplice.
4. MAKING THE STATUE OF LIBERTY DISAPPEAR
Arguably Copperfield’s best-known illusion was making the Statue of Liberty disappear (and then reappear). During a live TV event in April 1983, the illusion features an audience sitting on Liberty Island, facing the Statue of Liberty. After Copperfield raises a sheet to obscure the statue, the statue appears to be gone. To prove to the audience that the statue isn’t there, a helicopter flies above and searchlights move through the space. Copperfield remarked that the point of the illusion was to emphasize the importance of freedom and "how precious liberty is and how easily it can be lost. I can show with magic how we take our freedom for granted."
Copperfield shared that as a child, he was lonely and often dreamed of flying. Although he has "flown" above a stage in many live shows, he first "flew" in his 1992 TV special. He begins the stunt by holding a bird in his hand and marveling at its ability to fly. He then takes flight, moving gracefully through the air, and assistants spin big hoops around him. He also floats in a glass box and flies while holding a woman from the audience. Want to spoil the illusion? Copperfield "flies" by wearing super strong wires that are controlled by a computer and too thin to be visible.
Called "Portal," this illusion has a bit of everything—random audience participation, Polaroid photos, an emotional father and son reunion, a beach in Hawaii, and teleportation. With an audience member, Copperfield vanishes from a suspended platform and soon appears on a beach in Hawaii.
7. CUTTING HIMSELF IN HALF WITH A LASER
In this illusion, green lasers appear to cut Copperfield in half, across his waist. He then separates the lower half of his body from the upper half and moves around the stage in two pieces before coming back together.
8. MAKING AN AIRPLANE DISAPPEAR
Two years before making the Statue of Liberty vanish, Copperfield was already making massive objects—such as a seven-ton jet aircraft—disappear. Fifty blindfolded spectators stand around the plane, forming a human chain. After screens block the plane from view and lighting reveals the plane’s silhouette, the plane vanishes.
9. FLOATING OVER THE GRAND CANYON
Copperfield enlisted singer Bonnie Tyler to provide the live soundtrack to his 1984 stunt when he floated over the Grand Canyon. Part '80s music video and part illusion, the stunt features Copperfield in a seated position levitating through oval sculptures before floating across the Grand Canyon. The stunt ends with Copperfield back on land, embracing Tyler. What a rock star.