In a World Where Magic Sells, Magicians Keep Looking for Next Extreme

PHOTO: David Blaine seen during the "Electrified: One Million Volts Always On" at Pier 54 on October 5, 2012 in New York City. PlayBobby Bank/Getty Images
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Magicians are now more like celebrity stuntmen, pushing themselves to the brink to bring in huge audiences and rake in enormous wealth. But can magicians go dangerously too far to reach that inconceivable illusion?

David Blaine has made a career of pushing his body to limits so extreme his stunts have almost killed him. "Nightline" caught up with him before his "David Blaine: Real or Magic" special, which airs tonight on ABC.

He has spent over 20 years trying to master the technique of drinking kerosene without dying, and every expert has told him he should not do it -- if kerosene gets into the lungs, it can cause severe damage.

But Blaine, who famously froze himself to near death, held his breath for over 20 minutes, fasted for 40 days and buried himself alive, is continuing to raise the bar to give the audiences what they want -- to watch him cheat death.

"When I saw Houdini hanging over a building or Evel Knievel, you knew there was danger involved and that's what I loved most," he said.

The most successful magician in history is David Copperfield, who Forbes estimates is worth $800 million, reportedly selling more tickets to his shows than any solo performer ever. Copperfield has levitated over the Grand Canyon, sawed himself in half and escaped from Alcatraz before his cell exploded. He has made the Statue of Liberty disappear and walked through the Great Wall of China.

"Nightline" was given a rare look behind the curtain on Copperfield's stage in Las Vegas, the capital of a billion-dollar entertainment industry.

Audiences want to be amazed, and tempting death certainly keeps them coming back for more. Copperfield's mastery is about grand illusion, but he is no stranger to extreme feats.

Copperfield admitted that he too has had to step up his game in the face of fierce competition.

"It is dangerous," he said. "You take educated risks, but things do go wrong, things do screw up. You trust smart people, very well-trained ... [but] people get hurt."

Three years ago, one of Copperfield's assistants was severely injured on stage when he was pulled into a giant fan blade. MGM Grand President Scott Sibella was happy to talk about Copperfield's successes, but was reluctant to discuss the dangers of extreme acts.

For 13 years, Copperfield has performed at the MGM Grand, which is also home to Cirque du Soliel's "Ka" show. This summer, one the "Ka" performers was trying to balance on a wire during a show and fell 50 feet to her death. Just this past month, another Cirque du Soliel performer was hospitalized following a stunt on the Wheel of Death during a show at the Aria Resort and Casino, which is owned by MGM Grand.

In asking Sibella about those incidents and the dangers of extreme performances, an MGM spokeswoman cut the interview short, saying to only ask questions about Copperfield.

But Copperfield denied the notion that performing extreme stunts was only to fill seats. It's about seeing how far you as the magician can go, he said.

"I don't think it is to sell tickets, I think it is pushing their own boundaries," he said, adding that audiences expect to see "not the same old thing. See something that takes them to a whole new level."

Copperfield's mega-stunts, along with a headlining Vegas show, has afforded him a lavish if somewhat eccentric lifestyle. He has 10 islands and a 40,000-square-foot warehouse filled with magic memorabilia, which include a helicopter, spikes from a set where he hung from a straightjacket for a stunt, every David Copperfield news clipping and the largest Houdini memorabilia collection outside of the Library of Congress.

He laughed at the notion of being a "magic hoarder."

"It's a passion," he said. "Hopefully someone will do it for me some day."

Copperfield said for him magic is a passion but also an obsession, and this master of the vanishing act has no plans to disappear.