Houdini, My Father and Me

How Psychoanalyst’s Book Led to a History Channel Miniseries

Defiant: The father of Houdini, né Ehrich Weiss, pictured here in 1900, was a failed rabbi who worked in a necktie sweatshop on the Lower East Side.
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Defiant: The father of Houdini, né Ehrich Weiss, pictured here in 1900, was a failed rabbi who worked in a necktie sweatshop on the Lower East Side.

By Nicholas Meyer

Published August 29, 2014, issue of September 05, 2014.

My father, a New York psychoanalyst, wrote about the sons of passive or absent fathers. (There was doubtless a reason why they interested him.) Among his many elegant papers and monographs, covering such (seemingly) disparate characters as Bishop James Pike and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, are two published full-length biographies, one of Joseph Conrad (whose father vanished into exile) and one of Harry Houdini, né Ehrich Weiss, whose Hungarian father, a failed rabbi, wound up his anonymous life in a necktie sweatshop on the Lower East Side.

There are many biographies of Houdini. Some chronicle his achievements; others explain his tricks, but to my knowledge only “Houdini: A Mind in Chains,” by my father, Bernard C. Meyer, M.D., attempts to explain why the great escape artist did what he did.

Almost three years ago when my friend, producer Gerry Abrams, approached me about doing a life of Houdini, I drew his attention to my father’s book, which looked at the magician from this very different perspective. There have been endless abortive attempts to make a film or television “limited series” about Houdini, but aside from the charming and very sentimentalized Tony Curtis version, few appear to have reached a screen of any size or shape.

That this one did may be largely due to Abrams, who optioned my father’s book. Abrams and I had endless meandering conversations about this driven man, his motives and his times, and we presented our approach to the History Channel and Lionsgate Films, both of whom signed on. Now “Houdini,” for which I wrote the screenplay, airs September 1 and 2 on the History Channel.

Houdini was intent on rejecting the life his father settled for — living as though he was never alive. An encounter with a traveling magic show in Appleton, Wisconsin, and the chance discovery of the memoirs of Robert Houdin, a French illusionist, supplied Houdini with the inspiration and the means to shape his destiny. It was this rage to prove he existed that seems to have prompted many if not most of his actions, his repeated re-enactments of death and resurrection, in which, as he keenly understood, audiences shared his fears and desires to defy mortality.

This insight, to be sure, was not where Houdini started, but rather where he wound up. As a magician, he began, conventionally enough, with variations on the popular illusions of the day. It was more or less by accident that he stumbled upon extrication as entertainment, converting the hitherto taboo subject of bondage into wholesome family fare.

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