David Blaine shares the last magic trick that boggled his mind

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Tonight, David Blaine’s special “Real or Magic” airs at 9:30pm EST. Before that, he spoke to the TED Blog.

David Blaine, the magician, illusionist and endurance artist, is back on prime time TV tonight with the special, David Blaine: Real or Magic. Traveling around the world, the TED speaker (watch his talk, “How I held my breath for 17 minutes“) performs magic and elicits astonished reactions from people on the street — as well as from a formidable roster of celebrities, including Woody Allen, Ricky Gervais, Kanye West, Robert DeNiro and Stephen Hawking (who Blaine visited at his office in Cambridge University). David Blaine: How I held my breath for 17 minutes David Blaine: How I held my breath for 17 minutes

Blaine called TED on the day of his show’s premiere, between filming a bit for Nightline and live tweeting his special, which airs tonight at 9:30pm ET on ABC. Here’s what we asked him.

What was the last magic act or trick you saw that made you go “huh?” 

Hadji Ali’s performance on Laurel and Hardy in the early 1930s blew my mind. I’ve been fixated on it for 20 years now. He basically becomes a fire hydrant. And it’s in my show as well — it took me almost 20 years to learn how to do it. This journey took me all the way to Africa, where I met one of the only other people in the world who has the ability to do this trick. On my show, you’ll see me going to Africa to try and learn it.

Over the years, what has been the most memorable reaction to your magic?

I was on an airplane and the flight attendant asked me if I’d mind if she introduced me to one of the passengers who wanted to meet me. Of course I started doing magic for this woman and her boyfriend, and then I kept doing magic, and it was really funny and fun. Then at the end, when everybody walked away, the girl was laughing and crying at the same time. I was like, “What’s going on?” She told me she’d just had brain surgery less than a week ago and was just flying back from the surgery, and this was the first time she’d laughed since the beginning of this awful week she’d had. It was one of the most touching reactions I’ve ever gotten. And that’s kind of the point of magic — when you’ve able to brighten somebody’s day with something so simple.

How did you hook up with Stephen Hawking?

I read his book and have been a fan of his for a long time. Obviously he’s one of the top scientists in the world and so, when I was invited to Cambridge to do a speech, I asked all the kids at the Union if there was any way I could get in with Stephen Hawking. And it turns out he really likes magic. So I ended up spending an amazing amount of time with him and doing some magic. It was incredible to be able to do simple, sleight of hand effects for him and actually see him smiling. I got to spend quite a few hours in there with him, showing him tricks that I liked, and footage of other magicians, including the fire hydrant trick. Then he told me when he was at Oxford, he used to enter these beer drinking competitions. That was one of my favorite days.