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For someone dead 90 years, Harry Houdini maintains a remarkable show-business presence. “If you ask people to name a magician, they’ll name Houdini first,” says Penn & Teller’s Penn Jillette of the illusionist, whose life served as an inspiration for 2013’s Now You See Me and its sequel, out June 10.
Born Erik Weisz in 1874 in Hungary, Houdini came to America when his parents immigrated four years later. By 18, he was doing a magic act; at 20, he’d joined the circus, where he perfected his escapes. Almost immediately, he was a star — and was drawn to Hollywood. In 1919, Adolph Zukor signed him to a contract at Paramount, where he made silent action films like The Grim Game and Terror Island. (The former, which featured a death-defying airplane collision, was thought lost forever until a copy turned up and was restored by TCM in 2015.)
Houdini lived in L.A. at 1616 N. Curson Ave. and later in Laurel Canyon, but moved back to New York in 1921 and gave up on the movie business entirely two years later. But the biz did not give up on him: He’s been depicted in biopics over the years by Tony Curtis (1953) and Adrien Brody (2014), and for years producer Ray Stark tried (and failed) to mount a Houdini musical on Broadway with a real vanishing elephant. (“Houdini did an elephant-vanish in his act,” says Jillette, “but he hated that f—ing elephant.”) Houdini died in 1926 from a ruptured appendix after taking a punch in the stomach from a McGill University student.
This story first appeared in the June 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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