Erik Weisz, son of an unsuccessful immigrant rabbi from Hungary, settled in Appleton, Wis., became a world-famous magician and escape artist and changed his name to Harry Houdini.
He always liked to live on the edge. In one spat with his wife, Bess, he told her, “I’d rather escape death than dry the dishes.” Furiously, she replied, “And I’m just a dumb girl who married a Jew.”
The lives of Houdini, his wife, his mother and others around him get a thorough exposure in “Houdini,” airing at 9 p.m. on Sept. 1 and 2 on the History Channel in two two-hour segments.
The source book for the script is “Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait,” by Bernard C. Meyer, so it’s no surprise that the four-hour show leans heavily toward psychological interpretations.
That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of body action. Although the title character makes it a point to explain the tricks underlying his death-defying shticks, there was real physical danger in his acts.
In his Chinese Water Torture Cell act, he was lowered, hog-tied and chained head-first into a water-filled tank, and had to free himself before he ran out of breath, which he could hold for minutes on end.
As audiences demanded more and riskier stunts, and were diverted by the invention of silent movies, Houdini had to keep upping the ante.
One of his more spectacular performances, shown twice in the film, has him, chained and padlocked, leaping from the top of Eads Bridge in St. Louis, Mo., into the frozen river below through a hole chopped into the ice.
But all of this wasn’t enough of a challenge for the man. With World War I looming, Houdini happily became a spy for the British Secret Service. Using the fluent German of his parental home and the entrée granted in performing before the crowned heads of Germany and Russia, Houdini made off with some of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s most cherished war plans.
After the war, he set his sights on the raw new Hollywood, and for a short time, newspapers debated who would become the greater star — Houdini or Charlie Chaplin?
The first evening’s segment digs energetically into these exploits, making for an exciting, fun-filled show.
As Houdini, the lean, hawk-nosed Adrien Brody (himself the son of a Czech-Jewish mother) knows how to get the most out of these moments, as well as out of passionate clinches with Bess (Kristen Connolly).
Always in the background or at his side is his loyal assistant and ingenious inventor of escape equipment, Jim Collins (Evan Jones).
Being a nice Jewish boy, Houdini adores his doting Hungarian mother (Eszter Onodi), who speaks a mix of Yiddish and German, but not one word of English.
It’s the mother’s death that suffuses the second part of the film with a more somber tone, as the heartbroken son turns to clairvoyants and séances to contact his mother beyond the grave.
The veteran Houdini easily sees through the tricks of the spiritualists and, enraged, starts a lifelong battle to expose their tricks.
That quest earns him many enemies, especially his former friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and Doyle’s wife, both convinced believers in communing with their deceased loved ones.
Houdini died in 1926 at 52, after he insisted on performing with both a broken ankle and a ruptured infected appendix.
His funeral was attended by 2,000 people, and he was mourned by millions more, who validated Houdini’s saying, “Everyone wants to escape death — I do it for them.”