David Blaine:"Drowned Alive" at Lincoln Center


DAREDEVIL’S  JOURNEY includes extraordinary footage and outtakes from Shelley Ross

I first noticed the Travel Channel had undergone a great transformation soon after it brought in its new programming chief, Fred Graver, who I’d followed back in the 80s when he was a brilliant writer for  “The David Letterman Show.” So it didn’t surprise me that he was thinking out of the box.  It was great to find him also thinking inside a bubble, David Blaine’s bubble that is.

“A Beautiful Struggle” begins with never-before-seen material from Blaine’s 2005 interview with the legendary Evel Knievel who says to his new protegé: “You’re a strange character, kid, you’re a strange character,” adding “You have a problem.  You insist on doing things that are sincere and real and you just don’t want to give the people something they think they’re seeing and they’re really not.  You’re not just a magician. You’re not a stuntman.  You’re a daredevil.”

At that moment, hearing from the master himself, Blaine can’t help but react with joy at the validation that, in his own mind, seems to have eluded him for a lifetime.  And so begins what is more than a greatest hits reel of Blaine’s death-defying feats.  It is Blaine’s first true in-depth and comprehensive look at what makes him tick.

The Travel Channel “journey” takes us inside his mind during all his endurance events, from when Blaine was “buried alive” in an upper westside NY park to “frozen in ice”  in Times Square to living in a glass box high above the Thames River, atop a poll in downtown New York and in his human aquarium in Lincoln Center.  This is a do not miss for Blaine fans and a must not miss for his skeptics.

I first met David Blaine when I was the executive producer at Good Morning America and we discussed staging “Frozen in Time” in our studio.  Diane Sawyer and I had been wild over the stunt where he was buried alive and would often drop by the park to see the guy in the coffin on our way to work at 4:00 a.m., just to see if he was really there.  We sent bookers at random times holding signs, asking him to appear on the morning show.

It wasn’t any kind of debate to have his ice block in our studio; we just needed to be certain it was safe for him and our audience.  I always knew there was a lot more for Blaine to tell,  even as we were having fun with our weatherman, Tony Perkins, who was “frozen in fish sticks” as a sidebar one morning after.

For those days, all of us watched the toll of sleep deprivation.  And in the end, we watched him emerge, suffering disorientation, even hallucinations.  Jeff Jayson, one of our GMA producers, was so concerned he followed Blaine home and made sure he had food (which he hadn’t planned) and proper rest.

It was another four years before I met with Blaine, this time he asked me to produce his next special which became “David Blaine: Drowned Alive” for ABC. “I knew right away you were the one for me, ” he told me back then and reminded me just this morning when he sent me a “Beautiful Struggle” preview.   “Anyone who was the first to interview Charles Manson, who shares that goal to take cameras where no one has been before, is the producer for me.”

For months, I entered the secret world of David Blaine which at the time was centralized in a “bat cave” (below ground level) of an apartment in a trendy Manhattan neighbor.  There, amongst the vintage Houdini posters and  magician friends  I’d find randomly sleeping on couches and floors, we  brainstormed, we planned, we created, we argued.   We never argued about the direction of the show. We argued about segments he wanted to include which I knew carried too much risk of injury in the weeks leading up to a 90-minute live broadcast.

Shelley Ross and David Blaine get a case of the giggles on Jet Blue while screening the outtakes of ABC's publicity photos

I’ve Always Known The Secrets…

There is no one like David Blaine, and for a long time I thought I was one of just a handful to know that.  His heart, his mind, his eccentricities.   Now you can see it, too, as he shares so much of himself in this special from his childhood to the recent talk he gave at a Ted Conference where we see him breakdown while trying to explain to fellow super achievers why he pushes himself so hard.

I’m not sure he gets all the introspections exactly right. But, hey, it’s a journey, something at least the Travel Channel understands.