When Adrien Brody was faced with recreating one of Houdini's most ambitious stunts – freeing himself from a water torture chamber – the actor found there wasn't much room for error.
"You're in this confined space with additional pressure because it's a very narrow chamber and you're submerged upside down and bolted in. So turning around even to figure out how to get out – it's very disorienting," he said of his first day on the set of the History miniseries Houdini. "And it was very challenging."
This was just one of the ways the legendary escape artist kept his audience spellbound, along with wrangling himself out of a straitjacket while attached to a pole upside down off a building, breaking out of a prison cell and picking a lock to release himself from a bank safe. Practising breathing underwater, hanging from cranes and being shackled in chains in preparation to play the illusionist shed light on the "sheer pain" Houdini endured, said Brody.
Born Ehrich Weiss in 1874, he took the name Harry Houdini as a tribute to the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. His family moved to Appleton, Wis., from Budapest when he was a toddler, his father securing work as a rabbi. Growing up in poverty, Houdini took odd jobs such as shoe-shining as a child to help support the family and at 17 began his career as a magician.
"What he overcame, being an impoverished Jew in the time of greater anti-Semitism, and Eastern European, coming to the United States to become the most revered, iconic American performer and what he represented for America is the epitome of American success story," said Brody.
"All of his difficulties and flaws and drive and obsessions made him that person. And those aren't all perfect, great qualities, but they speak to someone that, at the end of the day, is remarkable and has left that impact on me and so many people in this world."
Houdini airs on the History Channel Monday and Tuesday.