It must be magic: We're speaking by phone with illusionist Criss Angel about his quirkily titled new Spike series, "Criss Angel BeLIEve," premiering Tuesday at 10, and he's actually on the LIE, being driven to his mother's home in East Meadow.
The title, Angel says, came from the word "believe" that Harry Houdini had placed in an envelope as a code word to his wife, in case purported psychic mediums claimed to have contacted him after his death. "The interesting thing about that [title] is that it does have the word 'lie' in the middle," Angel, 45, explains. "So, for me, I say believe but be cautious. And don't take the LIE! I mean, hasn't it been under construction for the last 30 years?"
That's a real Long Islander, all right. Long before he became one of the world's best-known stage magicians -- who traded top hats and capes for rock star hair and black leather -- he was Christopher Sarantakos, born at Hempstead General Hospital and raised in Elmont until fourth grade, when his family moved to East Meadow. His mother, Dimitra, still lives on Long Island, as does his brother J.D. His other brother, Costa, is vice president of Angel's Las Vegas-based company.
"Criss Angel BeLIEve," a spinoff of the same-name Vegas stage show that began in 2008, follows his 2003 Syfy special "Criss Angel Supernatural" and his 2005-2010 A&E series "Criss Angel Mindfreak." You can tell by the titles that he knows branding. And you can tell by talking to him that he knows marketing. "We've done more hours of magic on prime-time television than any magician in the history of TV," he boasts.
Ironically, the first episode of "BeLIEve" doesn't focus on magic, though we see a few instances that may or may not involve camera trickery. "People will say whatever they want to say and people will analyze and do what they want to do, and that's healthy," he says in response to a question about a particular trick on the premiere. Instead, the episode follows his development and execution of a non-illusion stunt: walking blindfolded along a steel beam high in the air, navigating a 2-foot gap along the way.
He's come a long way from the birthday parties, firehouses and even restaurants and bars, like the Wine Gallery in East Meadow, where he would perform as a teen before gaining his first major notice at the 1998 World of Illusion convention at Madison Square Garden. Now, his look and shtick are so iconic that Jim Carrey in "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" and David Tennant in "Fright Night" have played pastiches.
"Ultimately I don't believe my hype and I don't take myself too seriously," he says. "You have to laugh at yourself and look at real situations, like having cancer," which claimed his dad in 1998.
"That," he says, without illusion, "puts everything in perspective."
Psychic dispute dead on arrival
Apropos of his and his idol Houdini's distaste for mediums who claim they can talk to the dead, Criss Angel announces a challenge to Hicksville psychic Theresa Caputo of TLC's "Long Island Medium."
"If somebody's doing that for entertainment purposes, that's one thing. But if they claim to be communicating with the dead, I don't care if they're from my hometown, I don't care if they're my family members: I'll expose them and tell them what they really are," Angel says. "The Long Island Medium is just another charlatan. Any time she wants, we'll put her through a series of tests and I'll offer a million-dollar challenge to her. And you can put that in black and white."
Caputo's written response: "I respect and understand skeptics, and always have, but I am also not here to prove anything to anyone."