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David Copperfield pulls back the curtain (slightly)

Magician David Copperfield
Magician David Copperfield 05:23

He's the most successful magician of a generation, and one of the most enduring. Hard to believe it's been 40 years since David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty seem to vanish. That feat alone drew a reported 50 million viewers for CBS, and helped make Copperfield a household name.

Today, Copperfield's show is still a big draw at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where people crowd in nightly to see a billionaire at work. The show is all his design, from the music that swells at just the right moment, to the lighting and props on stage that let the audience see just enough to be amazed.

Presto! CBS News

"Sunday Morning" met Copperfield at his private museum near the Las Vegas Strip, where he's assembled the world's largest collection of all things magic, from Houdini's handcuffs and water escape tank, to the actual Macy's counter where a young Copperfield bought his very first magic trick.

Smith asked, "Do you still get chills walking around here?"

"You know, it becomes part of who you are," he replied.

Artifacts in Copperfield's private museum of magic. CBS News

 It's also where he refines his ideas under very tight security.

Smith asked, "How often do you share how you do these illusions with the public?"

"I think this is the first time we've discussed the journey, the process, on national TV," he said.

Just about all of his illusions start as sketches, like a flying saucer that magically appears, or a giant blade that seems to cut a woman in half. "It's a blade that not only is a blade, but I could hang from the blade," he said.

Blade illustrations. CBS News

And the results: divided! It was the first time somebody was seemingly cut in half lengthwise.

Sawing a women in half, lengthwise. CBS News

We also got a peek at a future illusion involving groups of people who will all vanish, or fly, or something like that. "This is a model, so we can get camera shots figured out for a big new illusion that … we can't talk about right now," Copperfield said.

Models for planning a future David Copperfield illusion.   CBS News

If it sounds like he's being evasive, it's because he is:  the first rule of Copperfield's magic is that Copperfield won't talk about his magic, mainly because he's one of the most copied artists in the business, and he doesn't want to give anything away. But that doesn't stop people from guessing. Just go online and you'll see videos from armchair experts who claim to reveal Copperfield's secrets.

And some of them are actually red herrings, posted by Copperfield himself.  

Smith asked, "So, the videos that you put out [as somebody else] are misdirecting people? They're not really the illusion explained?"

"One hundred percent," he said.

"Why do you do that?"

"Because it's fun!"

Designs for a spaceship illusion.  CBS News

For him, the magic business has always been fun. Born David Kotkin in Metuchen, N.J., the boy who became David Copperfield started doing tricks at age 12, and his success is no illusion.

"My 'magic' is real, to a certain degree," he said. "When you hear people call them 'magic tricks,' it's kind of like … I understand, I accept it, I use the word 'trick,' I did it today. But it's kind of diminishing all the hard work that goes in that in-between part, from when it's not there and when it's there."

Web extra: David Copperfield on the disappearing Lear jet illusion

Web extra: David Copperfield on his disappearing jet 01:08

He's now a very fit 66, and in a longtime relationship with designer Chloe Gosselin, with whom he has a teenage daughter. But Copperfield is still hustling. He does 15 shows a week, with three on Saturdays alone. There are no days off.  

"But David, you're a billionaire, you do not need to do this," said Smith.

"But I like it, you know?" said Copperfield. "I really enjoy it. I'm fortunate, you know, to walk out there and people are kind of happy to be there, you know? And some people actually need to be there. People are in the front row, and I can see in their face: Take me away, I need to dream."

And he says he'll keep at it as long as he can stand on a stage and make people wonder how the heck he does it.

"There can be 20,000 in an arena; there's one lady in the front row with her arms crossed, and that's the one I want," he said. "That lady, I have to try to, gotta make her smile, you know?"

"And how does it feel when you do?"

"You know, it feels great when you do. And when I don't, I keep trying!"

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Story produced by John D'Amelio. Editor: Steven Tyler. 

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