The man behind the magic

Sue Yeap

nyone with a passing interest in magic and illusion knows the name Harry Houdini, whose escapes from straitjackets, water tanks, milk cans and sealed crates went on to become the stuff of legend.

But what of Jim Collins, the man who helped design some of the contraptions from which Houdini would extricate himself during death-defying performances that had audiences around the world in raptures?

Collins was Houdini’s chief assistant and mechanic, the trusted keeper of his secrets even after Houdini’s untimely death in 1926. But little is known about Collins, with some magic websites unable even to agree whether he was English, Irish or Scottish.

“What did you find out because I didn’t find out too much, I found he was of Irish descent, right?” asks Evan Jones, the actor tasked with playing Collins in the two-part Houdini mini-series from The History Channel set to premiere on Seven next week.

“The writer told me he was an amalgamation of all the assistants because he had quite a few.”

Although in real life Collins was reportedly hired by Houdini in England and not a magic shop in Ohio, everyone seems in agreement that Houdini trusted Collins with his life.

“That’s how I wanted to play it, it made sense to me that there was something, some kind of a godfather figure with Houdini; Jim felt kind of saved by meeting him and loved magic so much,” says Jones during a chat in Los Angeles.

“When he saw him perform in his town in Macon, Georgia, it kind of changed his life. He felt, kind of like in a slave way, that he would work for this man and his life was more important than his own.”

Promising viewers in the introduction that what follows will be “fact and also fiction”, Houdini traces the artist’s childhood years as Ehrich Weiss, son of a Wisconsin rabbi, his early fascination with magic books and sideshow performers and how he met his wife Bess, a Coney Island showgirl who joined him on stage after they were married.

Adrien Brody and Kristen Connolly play Harry and Bess, taking their show from small towns to cities and on to the grand stages of Europe as Harry becomes more daring, escaping from handcuffs in locked prison cells and his infamous Chinese water torture cell.

Brody even performed some of his own stunts.

“He practised a bunch of the things and got good at a few of the things ... it was scary,” says Jones.

“I am always kind of freaked out when we do any kind of stunt.”

Jones, best known for roles in films including 8 Mile and A Million Ways to Die in the West, says unlike Brody, he had no childhood interest in magic.

“I wasn’t really too excited about magic or anything like that as a kid growing up, I didn’t really chase it like some kids, I know Adrien did, he was all excited about it. He he had some magic name and all that stuff.

“I didn’t really know that much about Houdini beforehand so when I got the role I went to The Magic Castle in Los Angeles and did a lot of research and it was crazy to find out what a big deal he is, like, literally the big deal of magic.”

Houdini helped build the Society of American Magicians into the richest and longest-surviving organisation of magicians in the world.

“He is the rock star of magicians still, he is like Elvis, he is, literally. You go and see a magic show now, you’re going to see stuff that Houdini did, at least a little bit of it.

“They still do some of his bigger tricks, all kind of versions. He was such a big deal at the time, he made so much money, he was the most popular entertainer in the world I want to say; I know he was in America and he travelled the world obviously.

“That kind of popularity and that kind of fame and that kind of wealth, I didn’t realise until I worked on it, it was pretty amazing to see what a big deal he was.”

Jones says it was at times nerve-racking filming in Budapest and they had to lay on the drama during the live performance scenes.

“You had to find the dramatic tension ‘Oh no, is he going to die, what’s going to go on, oh no’.”

And that, Jones thinks, is part of the enduring appeal of magic and Houdini in particular.

“I heard something recently; magicians are mostly trying to one-up the audience. The audience is kind of against them, ‘you’re going to try to trick us’ and this that and the other.

“But Houdini kind of flipped it, he made the audience get on his side, he would say ‘Oh no, how am I going to escape from this, this is no good’.

“And they’d be ‘Oh no Houdini, you can do it, you must do it for us and for life, get out of the straitjacket’.

“So when he did it was like a celebration.”

Houdini part one airs on Tuesday June 23 at 8.40pm on Seven/GWN7.