Roy Horn, Big Cat-Loving Siegfried & Roy Illusionist, Dies of COVID-19 Complications at 75

Courtesy of Siegfried & Roy/The Mirage Resort via Getty Images
Roy Uwe Ludwig Horn

His reign as one-half of the most successful act in Las Vegas history came to an end when he was mauled by a tiger onstage in 2003.

Roy Horn, the masterful showman who captivated the Las Vegas Strip for more than a quarter-century as one-half of Siegfried & Roy, only to see his career end abruptly as the result of a horrible accident during a 2003 performance, died Friday in Las Vegas of complications from COVID-19. He was 75.

"Today, the world has lost one of the greats of magic, but I have lost my best friend," his partner, Siegfried Fischbacher, said in a statement.

"From the moment we met, I knew Roy and I, together, would change the world. There could be no Siegfried without Roy, and no Roy without Siegfried. Roy was a fighter his whole life including during these final days. I give my heartfelt appreciation to the team of doctors, nurses and staff at Mountain View Hospital who worked heroically against this insidious virus that ultimately took Roy's life."

With its breathtaking theatrics — which included extravagant costumes and sets, pulsating lighting, pyrotechnics and feats of illusion — a Siegfried & Roy magic act at The Mirage was one of the most dazzling live performances ever produced, epitomizing the glitz and glamour of the city. They were headliners at the hotel for more than 13 years.

But what made their show a must-see event were the tigers and lions that Fischbacher — Horn's partner in life as well as show business — would make appear and disappear. The sheer danger of having hundred-pound animals a stone's throw from the crowd heightened the thrill, and at the height of its popularity, the act grossed $45 million a year, making them the most successful live entertainers in the history of Las Vegas. 

"The wonderful thing about Siegfried & Roy's show is that you didn't have to be over 21 to watch it," Mirage developer Steve Wynn once said. "It wasn't salacious or erotic. It was big and sensual, but you can take anybody to it and, more importantly, since 15 percent of this town was foreign visitors who don't necessarily speak English, we got all of the international trade."

Horn, the animal lover and trainer, would conceive a flaming dragon or suggest he ride an elephant onto the stage. He then left it to Fischbacher, the magician, to figure out how to make it happen. 

"Roy was always bigger than life," Fischbacher said in the October 2019 ABC 20/20 special Siegfried & Roy: Behind the Magic. "Roy had these dreams, and I had the ideas. His dreams were always so big, but we made the dreams become a reality."

"Siegfried often said that he by himself would not be enough and Roy by himself would be too much," added Lynette Chappell, the duo's personal manager. "But to me, it's like thunder and lightning."

Exotic cats roamed their sprawling Las Vegas compound nicknamed "Little Bavaria," where Horn would ride on the back of a white tiger.

"I can't even tell you the feeling — what it is — when a full-grown tiger licks your face," Horn once said. "But you also have the thing at the same time that one swipe of his paw can decapitate you."

On Oct. 3, 2003 — Horn's 59th birthday — Siegfried & Roy were performing at the Mirage in the 1,500-seat theater built and named for them. Horn was leading Mantacore, a 400-pound, seven-foot-long striped white male tiger, across the stage when he stumbled and fell. Mantacore sunk his teeth into Horn's neck and dragged him offstage. 

Some in the audience believed it was part of the act until Siegfried announced that the show was over. Backstage, trainers separated Mantacore from Horn. The puncture wounds were causing him to bleed out, and he had suffered a stroke. Horn would lose most of the use of his left side, and his performing days were over.

The official story was that Horn suffered the stroke onstage, causing him to stumble and set off the horrific chain of events. Instead of blaming the tiger, Horn did just the opposite. "Mantacore saved my life," he told People magazine in 2004. "He instinctively saw that I needed help, and he helped me."

The story was framed as an accident that couldn't have been prevented. But in March 2019, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Chris Lawrence, an animal trainer who was working that night and claimed that it was human error that doomed Horn.

"Many of the handlers thought that Roy was treating the cats more like props than he was respecting them for who they were," Lawrence said. "That can only work as long as there are no variables, which is impossible considering that you're dealing with a living, thinking animal. I am positive that Roy's diminishing relationship with Mantacore was a key factor in the attack."

The incident haunted Lawrence for years. Diagnosed with PTSD, he detailed to THR how Horn made several mistakes during the performance. "By Roy not following the correct procedure, it fed into confusion and rebellion," he said.

Roy Horn was born Uwe Ludwig Horn on Oct. 3, 1944, in Nordenham, Germany. His father was an orchestra leader who fought on the Russian front during World War II. His parents divorced shortly after the war ended, and his mother, Johanna, remarried.

At a young age, Horn realized he had a strong affinity for animals. "I learned very early that animals sense my thoughts before I have them," Horn said in a biography posted at SiegfriedandRoy.com. "People who don't have strong attachments for animals may think this is sentimental mysticism. For me, it is simply fact. It's because of what I experienced as a child that my security, my certainty of unconditional trust, unconditional emotion, and unconditional strength comes from animals."

Horn's mom had become close to a couple Horn called Aunt Paula and Uncle Emil. Emil was a sponsor and founder of the Bremen Zoo.

"My aunt and uncle knew of my love for animals and for a birthday present arranged for me to have unlimited access to the zoo and the library," he said. "From the time I was about 10, I went there every chance I could." During his visits, he bonded with a cheetah named Chico.

When he turned 13, Horn left home to explore the world and in 1959 found employment on the luxury liner S.S. Bremen. It was here he first crossed paths with Fischbacher, a fellow German who was working as a steward. The captain learned that Fischbacher was an aspiring magician and gave him an opportunity to entertain the passengers.

One night, Fischbacher asked Horn what he thought of the act. "Well, the audience really liked you. And it's great that you can do all those tricks," he said. "But quite honestly, I didn't like the show all that much. The magic seems so predictable. If you can make a rabbit and a dove appear, could you do the same with a cheetah?" 

When Fischbacher told him anything was possible, Horn took him back to his cabin. Inside was Chico. Uncle Emil had given the cheetah to Horn, and he had smuggled the animal onto the ship. "I wish I had a photograph of Siegfried's face," Roy said. "There they were, eyeball to eyeball — only one showing his teeth. Chico was tame with me but was still essentially a wild, exotic animal and reacted like one to this stranger."

The next night, Fischbacher made Chico appear inside a box onstage — and Siegfried & Roy was born. 

With Chico, the pair toured throughout Europe. In 1966, they made their way to Monte Carlo, and at the annual Monaco Red Cross Gala, they wowed the likes of Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, King Hussein of Jordan, Cary Grant, Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra. 

Siegfried & Roy made their American debut the next year at the Tropicana in Las Vegas as part of the Folies Bergère. They broke out in 1981 with their own show — Beyond Belief at the Frontier Hotel and Casino — that ran until 1988. 

Three months after Wynn opened the Mirage, Siegfried & Roy performed there for the first time in February 1990. For 13 years, a giant marquee featuring them and a white tiger loomed large over Las Vegas Boulevard. In 2000, they were named "Magicians of the Century" by the International Magicians Society.

After the accident, Fischbacher and Horn tried to keep the Siegfried & Roy brand alive. In 2004, they debuted Father of the Pride, a computer-animated sitcom for NBC about a family of white tigers whose patriarch (voiced by John Goodman) works in their show. Conceived before the tragedy, it aired just 15 episodes.

Siegfried & Roy performed onstage one last time at a 2009 charity event to benefit Las Vegas' Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. In a poignant farewell, Horn limped across the stage. Now the magician, he made his partner disappear and a white tiger appear in his place. It was later revealed that the tiger was Mantacore. (The cat lived at Little Bavaria for his remaining years before his 2014 death at age 17.) 

"Roy was always fearless. He had no fear of living. No fear of loving. And no fear of giving," Fischbacher once said. "And he says if I would have to do it again, I would do everything the same way. I regret nothing."