The Sunday Magazine

David Copperfield on the art of magic — and why he says it's all about truth

Illusionist David Copperfield talks to The Sunday Magazine about his decades of making things disappear and how it was never about deceiving his audience.

The master of illusion says his goal has never been to deceive people

David Copperfield, seen here in Cannes, France, June 18, 2016, says magic and illusion for him has never been about deceiving people. (Christian Alminana/Getty Images)

He may be a master of illusion, of fooling the eye and sleight of hand, but David Copperfield says magic for him has never been about deception.

"Truth is very important to me," the illusionist told The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay. 

A magician, you might say, could be forgiven for delighting in pulling one over on people. But for Copperfield, "it was never about fooling people or deceiving them ... It was creating wonder and possibilities."

Copperfield, 65, says some of the great technological advances of our time seemed magical only years before they were invented or achieved: going to the moon, body scanners, talking wrist radios à la Dick Tracy that today would be known as a smartwatch. 

A 1960's era Dick Tracy wrist radio is seen in a 2014 photo. Copperfield says the film's magical technology could be seen by some as a predecessor to today's smartwatch. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

"Magic has informed robotics, technology, science, art. All these fields have been moved forward by the art of magic," he said. 

And Copperfield is adamant that magic is indeed an art. He even lobbied the U.S. Congress back in 2016 to recognize magic as "a rare and valuable art form and national treasure," after a Republican congressman from Texas introduced the resolution. It had six other co-sponsors but stalled (and was met with some derision at the time, as one Democratic congressman tweeted about how his Republican colleague didn't believe in climate change, but believed in magic). 

Telling stories

Copperfield has been doing magic since he was a kid and professionally since his late teens. He has a hatful of awards to his name, including being named a Living Legend by the U.S. Library of Congress, Magician of the Century by the Society of American Magicians, and nearly two dozen Emmy Awards. 

But Copperfield says really, all he ever wanted to do was tell stories. Jealous of songwriters and singers who got to tell their stories with their voices, he decided he would do it with his magic. 

"I wouldn't just vanish a person in the shower. I would vanish them in the shower in the scene from [the horror movie] Psycho, because I love [Alfred] Hitchcock. I wouldn't do an escape. I would do it as a keystone cop number."

And he would eventually work on some of his biggest illusions with some of the best known storytellers in the world: producer/directors Frank Capra and Francis Ford Coppola. 

"They were pretty magical in their own way."

Film director and producer Frank Capra is seen in 1963. Capra helped Copperfield write the script for the disappearance of the Statue of Liberty, an illusion he initially did not want to help make happen. (Keystone/Stringer)

Capra helped him write the story around Copperfield's 1983 prime time TV event showcasing the disappearance of the Statue of Liberty. But it took some major convincing by Copperfield to get the award-winning filmmaker on board. 

"He said, 'I'll help you. But here's the deal... You're going to try to do it and you're going to fail.'" 

Capra, Copperfield said, felt very strongly that "liberty" could not be seen to disappear. Something Copperfield figured would not go over too well with the TV network. 

"I spent four hours with him trying to convince them 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." 

Capra finally agreed and the result became what the Guinness Book of Records has called the Largest Illusion Ever Staged.

Changing the world

But if Copperfield argues that magic has helped to move the world forward, that it has been the inspiration for inventions in robotics, medicine and technology, how does he explain it as art? 

"People don't understand magic as well as they do music or other forms of theatre," he said. "You have to kind of remind them of the artistry of it and the hard work that goes behind it."

Some of the behind-the-scenes work did get revealed in court in 2018, after Copperfield was sued by a British tourist who said he was injured during a 2013 Las Vegas show. The man had been randomly selected from the audience to be part of a trick and slipped and fell. A jury eventually found Copperfield to be negligent, but not financially responsible for the man's injuries. 

As for the recognition by Congress, Copperfield says it has been on hold for the past few years but is not a dead issue. And he says it would go a long way toward getting the same respect for magic that was afforded to ballet and jazz years ago when Congress passed a similar resolution about them. 

"Where it really helps is for a young person, a young woman or man, who wants to do something and wants a grant, let's say, to help their career. And if the government kind of acknowledges that it's a real art form, they might be able to get money for their future to expand their art form."

The future is what Copperfield says he's always been focused on, hoping to inspire people through his work to do something different. 

"To create something new, to show the possibilities exist, to make the world better. And I know that there's people that will be inspired by magical performances," he said. 

"They'll change the world." 

Written by Stephanie Hogan. Interview produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby and Tracy Fuller.