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THE GREAT ESCAPE; New Hollywood blockbuster tells how Houdini's daring stunts made him a hero to Scots. But, as LISA ADAMS discovers, his greatest trick may have been hiding his secret life as a police spy.

Byline: LISA ADAMS

DARING escapes, dangerous stunts and dazzling illusions made him the world's first superhero.

Now, 80 years after his death, Harry Houdini is to return to Edinburgh as the subject of a new Hollywood movie starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Guy Pearce.

Scotland, which Houdini loved and visited many times during an unforgettable career, provides a dramatic backdrop for the pounds 10million blockbuster, Death Defying Acts, which premieres at the film festival in Cannes next spring.

Zeta-Jones stars in the supernatural thriller as Scots psychic Mary McGregor, who has a passionate affair with the married Houdini when he visits the Scottish capital at the height of his fame in 1926.

Film crews captured Edinburgh Castle by moonlight to recreate the city as it was then. Other sights used to set the scene include the city from Salisbury Crags, digitally remastered to remove modern landmarks such as the Scottish Parliament.

Zeta-Jones even took voice coaching to replace her Welsh twang with a convincing Edinburgh accent.

Scots screenwriter Brian Ward, who teamed up with Tony Grisoni to write the movie script, claims it is loosely based on the story of Houdini's life.

But the extraordinary truth about his life is far stranger than fiction, according to Bill Kalush, the co-author of a new book, The Secret Life of Houdini, which is out on Monday.

He reveals the legendary performer worked as a spy for Scotland Yard, monitored Russian anarchists and chased counterfeiters for the American Secret Service - all before he was possibly murdered.

Kalush says: "We discovered an interesting letter from a man in Scotland who was reporting to Houdini there were rumours circulating that he was a spy.

"Dots started to connect and, as we answered some questions, new ones began presenting themselves."

He discovered Houdini had close links with William Melville, a British spy chief at Scotland Yard, who helped launch the star's European career by allowing him to demonstrate his escape skills.

And across the pond, Houdini's career took off after a publicity stunt was helped by a Chicago police lieutenant, the book says. But Kalush, who is close friends with modern day illusionist David Blaine, claims Mary McGregor never actually existed.

"I've never heard of her," says Kalush.

"Houdini was the ultimate attention seeker, and would be very happy that our book is being made about his life.

"He was a gigantic superstar, and one of the world's first true celebrities. A lot of women were drawn to him and found him very attractive.

"Despite life as a celebrity, he was very lonely at heart. He loved women, and I think he loved his wife, Bess, too. But they had a troubled relationship at times, and there is evidence Houdini had affairs - but never with a Scottish psychic.

"And all our evidence shows Houdini was in the US and touring Canada in 1926, nowhere near Scotland."

In the movie, Houdini - played by ex-Neighbours star Pearce - admits his greatest regret was not being at his mother's bedside when she died. That's why he promises a pounds 10,000 reward to any psychic who can contact her.

His offer attracts the attention of Zeta-Jones' character Mary, who uses her daughter Benji to gather information about clients by burgling homes and stealing public records.

She cons audiences into believing she's learnt all those details by paranormal means. A resident of Edinburgh's slums, McGregor then sets her sights on conning the world's most famous trickster.

As Houdini spends more time with McGregor, he begins to fall for her mysterious charms, and they embark on a steamy affair.

Houdini, who was billed as the "handcuff king", wowed audiences with his ability to free himself from chains, straitjackets, boxes and knots.

Born Ehrich Weiss in Hungary in 1874, Houdini's family emigrated to America when he was four. He first appeared as a trapeze artist aged just nine, before becoming a magician and escapist.

His most famous stunt involved being tied up, handcuffed and nailed into a weighted packing case that was dropped into New York's East river. He swam to the surface 59 seconds later.

In Scotland, his stunts delighted sell-out audiences at the Gaiety Theatre in Leith, and The Empire Palace, now the Festival Theatre.

Off stage, big-hearted Houdini gifted boots to Edinburgh's poorest children.

His friend, Sherlock Holmes' creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, wrote: "He was so shocked at the bare feet of the kiddies that he had them all into the theatre and fitted them then and there with 500 pairs of boots.

"He was never too busy to give a special free performance for the youngsters. He was the greatest publicity agent ever."

In Glasgow, people took the Hungarianborn seventh son of a Jewish rabbi to their hearts too. His escape from a hamper built by a local firm in January 1905 generated so much interest that a crowd actually broke in to the theatre to witness the challenge.

And when Houdini eventually left Scotland, the public begged him to return.

Kalush adds: "A waiting crowd hoisted him to their shoulders and carried him to the station on a run, the whole time singing, 'And when you go, will you no come back?'"

One of Houdini's most famous tricks was to have himself padlocked inside a milk churn full of water, and to escape with the locks still intact. But he secretly built a small dome in the lid of the churn, and a ring of fake rivets around the shoulder, creating a bubble of air which allowed him to breathe.

Houdini was just 52 when he died as he had lived, as the ultimate showman. The official story is that he developed peritonitis, an infection resulting from a ruptured appendix, after being punched in the stomach by a student eager to test his famed ability to withstand blows.

But Kalush believes Houdini's life-long crusade to expose mediums as frauds actually led to his death.

He became extremely unpopular with many psychics, who were furious he was putting them out of business. They even began predicting his death.

That's why Kalush believes Spiritualists may even have fixed up that fatal punch. When Houdini died in Detroit on Halloween, 1926, it seemed his aura of invincibility was over. But intense interest in him today proves he lives on.

The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero, by William Kalush and Larry Sloman, is published by Simon and Schuster. It costs pounds 18.99 and is out on December 4.

HOUDINI won world fame as the handcuff king with dozens of unforgettable stunts - and his career started early.

His mum claimed that, as a child, he learned to open locked cabinets to get at pies and sweets she had baked.

But his breakthrough came in the UK when he broke free from a pillar he was handcuffed to at Scotland Yard.

Stage illusions performed in London included vanishing an elephant and its trainer from a stage over a swimming pool.

In 1913, he performed the Chinese Water Torture Cell. He was locked upside down in a glass cabinet full of water while holding his breath for three minutes.

In one show in England, teetotaller Houdini allowed the cabinet to be filled with beer but, not used to the effects, he had to be pulled to safety - it was one of his rare failures.

He also hit the headlines for daring to jump into rivers while handcuffed and chained.

Always the showman, he'd remain underwater long after his audience were sure he'd died then spring up.

He told a reporter: "While the manacles and shackles are being adjusted so my limbs are powerless, I look down at the water below then I make up my mind I'm going to do it.

"From the time I let go until the moment I strike the water, everything is blank and my ears are filled with strange songs.

"The bitter cold of the first plunge cuts right into my heart, and I often bite my lips almost through, so great is the shock."

He also broke free from a crate that had been nailed shut and thrown in to a river and from the prison cell which held the killer of US president James Garfield.

He would often escape from straitjackets by dislocating his shoulders.

But Houdini never took his talents for granted.

He had an over-sized bath at home so he could practice holding his breath, and would regularly tie and untie knots using his feet.

'He was a gigantic superstar and one of the world's first celebrities. A lot of women found him very attractive'

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MAGIC SHOW: Star Zeta-Jones' PUSH THE BOUNDARIES: Houdini stunned audiences
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Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 6, 2006
Words:1447
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