David Copperfield was my childhood.
Ever since I was a little kid, I was fascinated by magic shows. That fascination continues to this day. Simple sleight of hand, some misdirection, it’s all wonderful to me.
I enjoy watching “Fool Us” with Penn & Teller these days. David Blaine can still wow me from time to time.
But to this day, nobody can match David Copperfield.
When David Copperfield was “The Man”
In the mid to late 1970s, a magician named David Copperfield began producing and starring in magic specials – first on ABC, then on CBS for the remainder of his run.
His big illusions became the talk of households across the nation. It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when everybody pretty much knew Copperfield’s big illusions. Even if they hadn’t seen them, they heard of them:
- Levitating a sports car
- Making a jet plane disappear
- Floating across the Grand Canyon
- Walking through the Great Wall of China
- and most famously, making the Statue of Liberty disappear
All of those great illusions were actually before I even became aware of Copperfield. I was born in 1985, and many of his biggest tricks had already been done.
But the late 1980s were a time of reinvention for the magician, which I’ll talk about in a moment. This, to me, is when he peaked: mixing performance and music with incredible illusions that stand up to repeat viewing to this day.
Copperfield largely disappeared (ahem) from TV after 1995’s Unexplained Forces special. He resurfaced in a one-off return in the underrated Tornado of Fire special in 2001, but that was it.
As his specials have never been released on DVD or VHS in any complete format, I had a worn-out recording of 1994’s 15 Years of Magic highlights special that kept me going the rest of the decade.
His DVD, Illusion, was just that highlights special repackaged with a few tricks from the Unexplained Forces special. It was fine, and it has a very entertaining commentary track from Copperfield himself, but I really wanted the full specials.
The internet brought his specials back to me
I had the good fortune of getting to see David Copperfield live in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was a dream come true to take my mother, who was always a huge fan herself, for Mother’s Day in 2004 or 2005.
He performed some of the tricks on this list, including the baffling Portal. And I’ll always treasure the amazed reaction from my mom when he made an entire classic car appear on posts in the middle of the stage.
Sometime around 2008 or 2009, I started browsing around eBay and discovered someone overseas selling bootleg DVD sets of all of David Copperfield’s old TV specials.
I don’t remember how much they cost, and I didn’t care. I had to have them.
I couldn’t pay rent or afford new headlights for my car, but I bought that DVD set for a trip down memory lane.
Since then, I’ve backed up those DVD recordings to my media server, and even better preserved versions of these shows have popped up on YouTube, thankfully.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve relived these specials with my 6-year old son. He’s enjoyed the magic (though he grew weary of all the dancing), and I’ve loved getting to experience this stuff all over again.
So, in the interest of having some pointless fun here and taking a break from serious personal development, why not rank my favorite illusions that he’s done?
A few notes about this list
It starts with his 10th special, The Bermuda Triangle. Why? Because to me, that’s when his specials really get going. His earlier work leans pretty heavily on cheese (and that’s saying something!). They are generally pretty slow and a bit variety-show-like, which is understandable for the times they were produced. I prefer the energy of the live stage shows and performances, rather than the experimental montages and “films” that he did earlier.
Why not the big finales? Copperfield is well-known for his closing illusions. But frankly, they’re easy to rank – and they have been ranked elsewhere. In my view, that list would be topped with Flying as his greatest one, and the Statue of Liberty disappearance being #2 purely for the legacy of it. At the bottom of the list would be the Tornado of Fire, just because its presentation was just kinda there. Making it snow at the end of Unexplained Forces was okay – definitely a great presentation (beautiful music), but the trick itself is kinda underwhelming. To me, he never topped Flying.
Some entries are here just for the music alone. Matching the music to an illusion really boosted some of these tricks from pure sleight of hand to great experiences. A few of them I’ve rewatched just because, for all their simplicity, they become beautiful with the right soundtrack. This is especially true of #1.
I was surprised by the totals. Most specials had 2-3 illusions that made the list. His tenth special, The Bermuda Triangle, only had one. That’s not a surprise because it was his least favorite (mine too). But I was surprised to see his 15th special, Fires of Passion, lead the way with 4 entries. We watched that one last night and I was surprised by how stacked it was. His following special, Unexplained Forces, matched the low with only one.
Yes, magic isn’t “real”. This isn’t a place for you to drop in the comments with “OH PLEASE IT’S SO EASY TO SEE HOW HE DID THAT BLAHBLAHBLAH”. I’m fascinated with how illusions are done. And in fact, I’m pretty sure I know a handful of these. I’m ranking these based on how impressive they turned out, the experience of watching them, and the overall performance. I am not impressed by your condescending knowledge of stuff, so keep it to yourself. Magic is supposed to be fun.
Let’s get to it. I didn’t rank every trick on this list, I just picked out my favorites and then sorted them by my preference. And I tried to include links to everything so you can see them for yourself (cheers, YouTube).
#18. The Ring on the Hourglass (XII: The Niagara Falls Challenge)
These tricks are almost infuriating to me when I watch them (there’s an even more frustrating one later on this list).
Copperfield picks a woman out of the crowd, takes her ring and puts a ribbon through it. He closes the ring in a box, pulls the ribbon out of the box through the ring, then it reappears seconds later on the middle of an hourglass. He has to break the hourglass with a hammer to give the ring back.
Some of the most impressive illusions are pure sleight of hand to me, but this is one of those that I can watch again and again and just not figure any of it out.
This is also one of those illusions that rely heavily on Copperfield’s banter with the audience member as opposed to an elaborate dance routine. He was always great at balancing the two out, which is why his specials always worked for me.
#17. The Squeezebox (XIV: Flying – Live The Dream)
The first on the list that I’ve seen him do live.
The Song: Nation by Big Pig
It’s not the most complicated-looking illusion on the list. Copperfield climbs into a box, lays down, and gradually compresses himself down so that he is just a head and feet, with his arms sticking out the top. Where did his body go?
I have my suspicions about how this one is done, but the visual of him being spun around as his feet dance is one that sticks with me. Very effective illusion and a lot of fun.
#16. The Attic Disappearance (XII: The Niagara Falls Challenge)
The Song: Who Loves You by Alannah Myles
The first of the big romantic performances on the list. Copperfield is cleaning out an attic and daydreams about a past love. She appears, they dance, and then she playfully covers herself with a blanket. He reaches to pull the blanket off of her, and she disappears back into his memory.
I love this one because of how well it’s staged. The woman (played by supermodel Kim Alexis) disappears while sitting in a chair up on a platform, and her silhouette is in the chair the whole time, right up to the disappearance. Really impressive.
#15. The Motorcycle Reveal Entrance (XI: The Explosive Encounter)
The second on the list that I’ve seen him do live.
The Song: One More Chance by Pet Shop Boys
A big, empty box is presented to the audience. Giant flashlights are shining throughout the space. The box is closed up, a light appears inside, then a shadow of Copperfield riding his motorcycle. The walls come down, and there he is in a puff of exhaust, atop his bike.
It’s Magic 101: “Here’s a box, it’s empty, now something appears in it!” But I always enjoyed whenever Copperfield made a dramatic entrance. There are several on this list. I think this one makes it because I’ve seen it live, and it’s impressive. You can squeeze a human body into certain spaces, but it’s a lot harder to get a motorcycle in there undetected. It works.
#14. Interlude (XIV: Flying – Live The Dream)
The Song: Lay Your Hands on Me by Peter Gabriel
Is this the cheesiest dance number of the bunch? Probably. Some really bizarre moves in this one, but I enjoy the song and the illusion.
Copperfield dances around with two women, then climbs into an apparatus where his body is completely visible. They cover his midsection with a black cloth and instantly, one of the women puts their hand through his body. She then climbs through, passing right through his midsection.
I think I know how this one is done, but the presentation is just solid. The way it is filmed really looks effective, and it’s quite the image to see him standing there with a woman sticking out of him. Other magicians have done this illusion, but none of them match this presentation.
#13. Dancing Tissue Paper (XIII: Mystery on the Orient Express)
The Song: Dela by Johnny Clegg and Savuka
I’ve been singing this song for a week.
Standing in the middle of the crowd, Copperfield brings an audience member to his side. He has her inspect a piece of tissue paper, crumbles it up, and with a wiggle of his finger, makes it dance in his hand. It dances and floats all over his arm – and hers. Then he folds it into a rose, lights it on fire, and produces a real rose for her.
This one drives me nuts. I can understand the logistics of it for the most part, but I can’t really figure out how he would do it. A piece of tissue paper would be very hard to control in this manner. It’s again, such a simple trick, but so effective. And it’s fun.
#12. A Simple Appearance (XVII: Tornado of Fire)
Four guys hold up a steel plate. A billowing curtain falls from the ceiling and lands on the plate. As it lifts, Copperfield is revealed. It’s matched with gorgeous orchestra music that really makes it.
Again, simple. The curtain flows and billows in such a way that you can see he’s not in there as it comes down. Where does he come from? I don’t know. But I love this one.
#11. Pole Levitation (XI: The Explosive Encounter)
The Song: Straight To My Heart by Sting
Using the story of a man who needs to prove his love to a princess (played by soap opera star Emma Samms), Copperfield sits holding two poles and levitates up to the top to reach a bag with a necklace in it for his love. Periodically, assistants fly a large sheet over his head to show there are no wires.
Certain levitations are easy to spot as fishy when you watch how the rings are slid over the top of the person levitating. But this sheet goes right over the top of him and back, and it looks hard to fake that. Slick presentation on this one.
#10. Air Coppers (XV: Fires of Passion)
Similar to the infuriating hourglass trick, Copperfield brings a woman from the audience onstage, makes her ring disappear in front of her face, then they instantly appear tied into the laces of the tiny sneaker in his back pocket.
Normally, the trick to figuring out an illusion is to watch what nobody else is watching. But… there isn’t really much to watch here. He actually puts his arms around her so that the ring disappears inches from her face. And there is only a few seconds before he turns around to reveal the ring tied to the shoelaces.
I hate this trick.
#9. Motorcycle Metamorphosis (XIII: Mystery on the Orient Express)
Not done in front of a crowd, so there’s probably something to this trick that can’t be done live.
Copperfield enters on a motorcycle, parks it, covers it with a sheet, waves his arm, and the bike turns into two beautiful women with luggage.
I can kinda see how this one would work, but it’s the timing that baffles me. It’s so fast. That’s the thing with a lot of these performances. Being able to pull them off so quickly eliminates a lot of assumptions about how the trick is done. And it’s an awesome visual.
#8. The Moon Rock (XVII: Tornado of Fire)
When we sat down to rewatch these, I didn’t expect to be this attached to an illusion, but I just am.
Copperfield waves a rock over a wine glass filled with water, and the water disappears. He does it again, and now there it is full of water to the top. Then, right in front of the camera, he splashes a little water into his hand, opens it, and drops a bunch of live goldfish into the glass.
I like the little story he tells about the moon and the tides while he does the trick. But what pulls me in and makes me rank this so high is the music. It swells perfectly, and it’s just so dang beautiful that I watch this trick over and over again.
And seriously, where did the fish come from?
#7. Cocoon (XV: Fires of Passion)
The Song: Mama by Genesis
I thought this was a camera trick when I first saw it as a kid. I watched it repeatedly, but couldn’t figure it out.
Today, I’m pretty sure I know how it works. But the presentation of it is still so effective, it has to be ranked highly on the list. Copperfield and a woman dance around for a while. She ties him into a “cocoon” and closes it. It rises up out of reach with his hand sticking out, so you can see he’s in there.
She lifts a blanket and he instantly appears behind it. The cocoon opens, and the woman is in there. They switched places instantly.
It’s a form of an old trick by Houdini called Metamorphosis, where the magician switches places with an assistant using a trunk. But it’s such an advanced version of it, it really works.
#6. Heaven on the Seventh Floor (XIV: Flying – Live The Dream)
Another great entrance.
An elevator descends from the ceiling. It opens up completely to reveal that it is empty. It closes. A silhouette descends from inside. It opens to reveal Copperfield.
The fact that this is done in mid-air is what makes it work so well. Interestingly, he did this illusion with Taylor Swift years later. She didn’t look that impressed to be there, sadly.
#5. Portal (XVII: Tornado of Fire)
The third on the list that I’ve seen him do live.
This is one of those tricks that you point to and say, “It’s clearly fake!”, but when pressed to explain how… you got nothing.
Copperfield gets random audience members to draw pictures, take photos, and write initials on his arm. Then he takes someone onto a platform over the audience. They disappear and reappear onscreen in Hawaii. He shows the camera all the pictures and the initials on his arm to prove it’s live. Then, he disappears from the beach and reappears in the middle of the crowd, bringing rain from Hawaii and a fistful of sand.
People like to debate the video feed, and that’s fine. I don’t quite get how that part is done, considering the tides on the beach. It’s hard to fake that. But okay, assume it’s faked. To me, the wow factor is in the disappearance over the audience.
I watched it live, and no matter how it’s done, it is truly impressive. The cloth sides ripping away and the dangling spotlight are great touches.
And the reappearance, with the swell of the again-perfect orchestra music, combined with the rain inside and the sand to tie it all together, works wonderfully.
Regardless of whether or not you buy it, or if you care for the cheesiness of the presentation, it’s fantastically well done, and it is exactly the same live as it is on TV, which makes it all the more amazing.
#4. Grandpa’s Aces (XVI: Unexplained Forces)
The Song: Love Theme from Cousins by Angelo Badalamenti
Unexplained Forces is a bit underwhelming. I don’t care for the ghost motif throughout, and as a kid, it was fine. I was just excited to have another David Copperfield special to watch.
But the one that stuck with me was this card trick. The tribute to his grandfather, the swelling music (I actually have this song on my focus music playlist, it’s so good), and a really effective trick.
In the DVD commentary, Copperfield explains that his grandpa did teach him a card trick, but the one he performs here is far more advanced than that one. It’s really cool in execution, and perfectly timed to the soundtrack.
#3. Brazilian Water Levitation (XIII: Mystery on the Orient Express)
The Song: The Rhythm of the Heat by Peter Gabriel
I think this is the first trick I really connected with as a kid. Everything about it is perfect: great, exotic presentation… dramatic illusion… perfectly timed to the music.
Copperfield raises water out of the ground and levitates a woman on it, then splashes away the water to levitate her in the air, spinning her around.
It’s the music and the stage presentation that connect this one with me so well. Plus, the levitation is clearly very advanced. It’s tough to spot, but combining it with water and fire is just perfect.
#2. The Death Saw (X: The Bermuda Triangle)
I nearly made this number one, because it is that good.
The Masked Magician spoiled this one, but it’s still unbelievably good. Copperfield has to escape from a box before a saw cuts him in half. He gets the box down, but he doesn’t get out in time, so the saw cuts him in half in plain view. His body is separated, he moves his feet, then reverses the whole thing to join himself back up again.
I don’t like the Bermuda Triangle special. Neither does Copperfield (calling it “a bad career move” in a joke in the next special). But this illusion is wonderful. At the time, nobody had done this kind of thing before – preferring to cut people in half using boxes. To cut someone in half without anything hiding their body? Talk about drama!
What amazes me more than that is that this isn’t the show closer. It’s the opener. How do you follow this with anything else? The show goes from the Death Saw to a music video montage of him doing tricks with a woman on a tropical vacation, then a duck trick, then his Bermuda Triangle finale.
You can’t follow the Death Saw with much. Definitely not the other stuff on this show.
#1. After Hours (XV: Fires of Passion)
The Song: They Won’t Go When I Go by George Michael
If you had asked me a month ago to make a list like this, I would have never predicted this one going at the top.
Copperfield is hanging out “after the show” in this premise, thinking about a woman. He makes her appear on a platform by holding up a red cloth. They dance dramatically, then she drapes the cloth over her head and steps up onto the platform again. With a wave of his arm, Copperfield levitates her high into the air, claps his hands, and the cloth rolls up and falls down to him, empty.
This is the type of performance that demonstrates why people took to David Copperfield in his heyday. It’s dripping with drama, and it is perfectly choreographed to the music. Combine that with an unexpectedly impressive disappearance, and it’s just perfect.
It’s actually a little understated, and I think that works even better. The George Michael song is so, so good. But at its peak, it falls silent. They choreographed the trick to match the levitation with this silence. She reaches the top of the levitation, everything is silent, and all you see and hear is Copperfield clap his hands once. There’s no hiding the illusion. The cloth just rolls up in the air and falls, perfectly timed to the piano.
Magic performance at its finest.
David Copperfield has his detractors. He has his fans. What nobody can deny is his work ethic. He is worth around $1 billion legitimately, is one of the world’s highest-paid entertainers, owns tropical islands, and could retire whenever he wants. At 64 years old, however, he is running 15 shows a week in Las Vegas.
I would love to fly out to Vegas to see him one more time. I admire the passion he has for his craft, and no matter what, that passion always showed in his specials.
There. I’ve now written 3600+ words on David Copperfield’s magic specials. The ultimate tribute to my childhood and my nostalgia for old pop culture.