A native of Budapest, he moved with his family to the U.S. as a child. The preeminent Stage Magician of his time and the greatest Escape Artist of all time, Houdini (who based his stage name on the French magician, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin) was one of the great entertainers in Vaudeville and became one of the highest paid in the industry. He also accepted dares to see if he could escape various police jail cells, secure transports and personal restraints, and usually did, and sometimes while nude to "prove" he wasn't carrying tools.note Authorities noted that they were very lucky he never decided to turn his talents to crime, as it would be impossible to keep him imprisoned.
In addition to stage craft, Houdini also starred in films although that career path proved unsuccessful and even had some notoriety as an airplane pilot, doing the first flight in Australia.note
Houdini married his stage partner Wilhelmina Beatrice "Bess" Rahner three times. Once in secret and then once in each of their houses of worship, as Houdini was Jewish (the son of a rabbi) and Bess Roman Catholic.
Houdini had some interest in the supernatural, but was disgusted to find the only ones available were frauds. As a result, Houdini dedicated himself to debunking claims of the paranormal by infiltrating seances to expose the fakery and showing how the fakers did it on stage. It cost him his friendship with believer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who was seriously convinced that Houdini actually had paranormal powers and nothing Houdini could say or do would change that in his eyes. All the while, Houdini dearly hoped to find the real thing in this crusade and even arranged a secret signal that he would try to use after he died. After his death, his wife would regularly do seances trying to contact him until she gave up in 1936, saying "Ten years is enough for any man."
In addition to stagecraft and escape artistry, Houdini worked as a circus strongman, and that played a big role in his career as an escape artist. Take a look at that picture up there. Houdini didn't always work naked (though he frequently did publicity stunts where he proved he wasn't hiding keys anywhere... but only in the presence of gentlemen. Even so, he was always Mr. Fanservice, and that was the key to his act, even more than the daring escapes.
- Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris — Cinema Lux (1909), playing himself.
- The Master Mystery — Octagon Films (1918), playing Quentin Locke.
- The Grim Game — Famous Players-Lasky / Paramount Pictures (1919), playing Harvey Handford.
- Terror Island — Famous Players-Lasky / Paramount (1920), playing Harry Harper.
- The Man from Beyond — Houdini Picture Corporation (1922), playing Howard Hillary.
- Haldane of the Secret Service — Houdini Picture Corporation / Film Booking Offices of America (1922), playing Heath Haldane.
Portrayal in fiction
- He appears in the backstory of Atomic Robo as part of a Dream Team of historical adventurers, alongside the likes of Annie Oakley, Wong Kei-ying and Nikola Tesla.
- Houdini is a recurring character in American Dreams (2021), where he helps protagonist Jake Gold break into show business.
- In Houdini (1953) by Paramount Pictures, he was portrayed by Tony Curtis.
- In Ragtime (1981) by Paramount Pictures, he was portrayed by Jeffery DeMunn.
- In A Night at the Magic Castle (1988), he was portrayed by Arte Johnson.
- In Fairytale A True Story (1997), he was portrayed by Harvey Keitel.
- In Cremaster 2 (1999), he was portrayed by Norman Mailer.
- In Death Defying Acts (2007), he was portrayed by Guy Pearce
- Imprisoned with the Pharaohs by H. P. Lovecraft is based on a tale Houdin told written in Houdini's perspective.
- Percy Jackson and the Olympians has an offhanded remark by Chiron saying Houdini once went down to the Underworld, had himself chained, and escaped to tell the tale. Whether he could pull this off due to being a halfblood (demigod) or he was just a normal mortal who happened to be able to see through the Mist, the reality-distorting field maintaining The Masquerade, is not said.
Live Action TV
- In The Great Houdinis (1976) Made-for-TV Movie, he was portrayed by Paul Micheal Glaser.
- In the Houdini (1998) TV Movie, he was portrayed by Johnathon Schaech.
- In the Houdini (2014) miniseries, he was portrayed by Adrien Brody.
- In Kamen Rider Ghost (2015-16), Houdini appears as one of the 15 Heroic Spirits. Objects that represent him are his Eyecon with a bike called Machine Hoodie. In a two part episode Houdini possesses a girl and claims that ghosts don't exist, only to be pointed out that he himself and the protagonist are ghosts.
- In The Ministry of Time (2015-17), he's featured in one episode, as the plot involves him putting Joaquín María Argamasilla's alleged X-Ray Vision to the test. Portrayed by Gary Piquer.
- In Houdini & Doyle (2016), Harry Houdini appears as one of two titular male protagonists. He was portrayed by Michael Weston.
- One death on 1000 Ways to Die covered his eventual death.
- He appears in Murdoch Mysteries being framed as a suspect for a bank robbery and homicide. He was portrayed by Joe Dinicol.
- Drunk History covers Houdini's hatred and skepticism on spiritualism. He was portrayed by Ken Marino.
- He appears in an episode of Timeless as part of the World's Columbia exhibition in Chicago (as in Real Life) and an unknowing neighbor of serial killer H. H. Holmes. He was portrayed by Michael Drayer.
- The Doctor has name-dropped Houdini more than once; he thus appears several times over across the show's expanded universe.
- Kate Bush's "Houdini" tells a fictionalized version of Houdini's death, in which he is killed during a trick Gone Horribly Wrong rather than dying from peritonitis induced by a punch to the gut.
- Spanish neoclassical metal band Dark Moor have "Houdini's Great Escapade" as a song on their album Beyond the Sea.
- Epic Rap Battles of History pits him against fellow magician David Copperfield.
- Freshy Kanal pits him against Marvel villain Mysterio.
- Hunter: The Parenting Big-D claims to have killed him.
- He was featured in an episode of Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum.
- Appeared on Time Squad where he used his skills to pull heists. It was Time Squad's job to get him to use his magic acts legitimately as a way to earn money.
- One of several paranormal challenges that exist now, the Harry Hodinin Prize based in Russia, is named after Houdini in tribute to his work on debunking phony psychics.