Siegfried and Roy: Five Years After the Tiger Injuries

The Las Vegas illusionists tell "20/20" about Roy's difficult rehabilitation.

March 5, 2009— -- In a town full of big names, Siegfried and Roy's became the biggest. With their menagerie of exotic tigers and lions, these self-proclaimed "masters of the impossible" earned more money than any other act in the history of Las Vegas. At their peak they brought in $57 million a year.

But their career nearly came to an end when a tiger dragged Roy Horn offstage in October 2003. He has been recuperating since then, and still faces many obstacles.

Watch Siegfried & Roy's final performance in "Siegfried & Roy: The Magic Returns," a special edition of ABC News' "20/20," Friday, March 6 at 9 p.m. ET

In a revealing interview with "20/20" co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas, the illusionist pair opened up about Horn's dramatic five-year rehabilitation.

But Horn, who is now 64 years old, wasn't the only one who was affected by the accident; Siegfried Fischbacher, now 69, was also struggling to hang on, overwhelmed by the injury to his friend and what that injury meant to the only thing he really loved ... his magic show.

"I was so alone, and I was so lost," he said. "And, of course, I got in depression, but the depression was more because of the show ... because it was over."

Making Magic Once Again

At a fundraiser last year for the new Lou Ruvo Brain Institute in Las Vegas, Fischbacher announced the duo's return to the stage for one final night.

Saturday's performance raised more than $10 million for the state-of-the-art medical facility, which is under construction in Las Vegas. The Institute was developed to treat brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, Lou Gehrig's and Parkinson's.

"I'm at a part of my life now where I think I can give something back," Fischbacher said. "And this country and Las Vegas was so good to me for 45 years, and I think that was a perfect reason to do it."

From Bunny Rabbits to Tigers

Fischbacher and Horn's partnership began in 1959. They grew up in post-war Germany, the sons of alcoholic fathers. As a young boy, Siegfried said he turned to magic as his way of coping with his father's indifference. Horn found his escape in a love for animals, even working part-time at a local zoo. The two met as teenagers when each took a job aboard a cruise ship. Fischbacher was performing a magic act and needed an assistant. Horn, then a bellboy, jumped at the chance to perform. One night, after a show, Horn asked Fischbacher a question that would change both their lives.

"He said to me, 'What you just did with the rabbit tonight, could you do this with a cheetah?' A cheetah for me was something very exotic, very outlandish. So, I said to him, "Well, of course, in magic anything is possible' … not realizing he had a pet cheetah."

Chico the cheetah, whom Horn had liberated from the zoo back home, became a permanent part of Fischbacher's act.

Fischbacher, Horn and Chico eventually went ashore, performing in nightclubs and cabarets all across Europe. They were hired in the late 1960s by the famed Follies Bergere of Paris, which was launching a new show in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas and the Rat Pack reigned in the 1960s, and topless show girls were often the main attraction in any act. Two Germans with thick accents doing a magic act with a cheetah hardly seemed a likely fit. But their idea of replacing wild naked exotic dancers with wild naked exotic animals caught on.

Real estate tycoon Steve Wynn soon took notice of the pair. "The wonderful thing about Siegfried and Roy's show is that you didn't have to be over 21 to watch it," Wynn 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."

Siegfried and Roy were so popular that Wynn decided to build an entire casino resort around them and their animals.

Putting on the Siegfried and Roy show took 250 cast and crew members and 75 tons of scenery. Night after night, for more than 5,000 performances, the pair dazzled sell-out crowds.

Through it all, Fischbacher and Horn lived as an unconventional family in their palatial home called the Jungle Palace, a place they shared with 63 tigers, 16 lions and a slew of other exotic animals. They treated all the creatures like their children. Fischbacher said she has always marveled at Horn's unusual connection with animals.

Siegfried Was 'A Little Jealous'

"It was unbelievable for me, and I never understood it," Fischbacher said. "And, sometimes, I got a little jealous because, how come I can't be that way?"

Horn's remarkable connection with wild animals has always seemed magical. But Horn was also quick to remind people that, in this relationship, joy is coupled with danger.

"You can't take nothing for granted, even if you think you know it all," he said.

Watching him on stage, night after night, it was easy to think of the danger as just another illusion.

Horn 'Died on the Table'

But during a regular Friday night performance in October 2003, something terrible happened. One of Horn's beloved tigers, Montecore, broke from the regular act. Eyewitnesses who were in the audience that night say it appeared as if Montecore reached up, bit Horn on the neck, and dragged him offstage. Those close to Fischbacher and Horn, and the men themselves, said Horn fell and Montecore was simply helping his master.

Wynn said, "It's clear that Montecore did not attack Horn. ... He leaned over and picked him up the way you would pick up a tiger cub and made an exit on stage left the way they make the exit every night."

One thing was clear to everyone that night: Horn was in critical condition. He was rushed to University Medical Center where Dr. Jay Coates was the first surgeon to treat him.

"Roy came in and flat-lined, died on the table," he said.

Montecore had left two gaping puncture wounds on the back of Horn's neck that punctured an artery. Doctors spent nearly three hours in the operating room. The massive blood loss caused Horn to have a stroke.

After hours of surgery, doctors gave Fischbacher, Horn's longtime friend and partner, a grim prognosis. They told him Horn would never walk or talk again. Fischbacher refused to believe the doctor's words. "For some reason ... I always thought ... somehow we're going to pull it through."

Horn Confident About His Future Health

Fischbacher was right. Despite his devastating injuries (he has partial paralysis on the left side of his body) Horn can walk and talk. The pair live at a 100-acre compound in Las Vegas known as Little Bavaria.

Horn spends much of his time feeding and caring for the less exotic animals that now surround his home. He believes this helps in his rehabilitation. The tigers and lions that once roamed free are no longer there. Horn said that is by necessity, not choice.

"There's a little bit of a setback now, because of my condition. I'm not quick like I used to be," he explained. Horn said his doctors are very confident about his future. "My doctor has told me that within one year I will be able to do everything I want to do."

For Fischbacher and Horn, their final performance to benefit the Ruvo Institute was a perfect ending to a long and wonderful career.

Fischbacher is proud of all they have accomplished. "Now I realize ... boy, we had an unbelievable career, and we did that all together, and now I'm so grateful for it."