By Sophfronia Scott Gregory
February 21, 2000 12:00 PM

As the first magician to wear tie-dyed outfits and sport a look more hippie than Houdini, Doug Henning rarely lived his life in conformity. Indeed, even in death he bucked the odds. Diagnosed with fiver cancer last Sept. 26, Henning received only one chemotherapy treatment before swearing off it for good, no doubt alarming his doctors at L.A.’s Cedars-Sinai hospital. “[The chemo caused] such a terrible reaction because his body was so sensitive and pure, being a lifelong organic-foods vegetarian, that it really almost killed him,” recalls his wife, Debby Henning, 45. So in October her husband returned to the couple’s Spanish-stucco rental home in Beverly Hills where, on his own, he went off the IV fluids and fasted for nine days. According to Debby, at the end of that period the swelling in his side had gone down. “Dougie roused himself,” she recalls, “and said, ‘I think I’m better.’ He felt he had revived himself.” Henning then began eating again, and his spirits soared. “Nature gave him a little more time,” says Debby, “but in the end it took its course.”

By his Feb. 7 death at 52, Henning was a recognized pioneer in his field. Beginning in 1974, the shaggy-haired illusionist brought magic to the masses, appearing on Broadway, television and in Las Vegas, where he got the lion’s share of the glory long before Siegfried & Roy. “He gave magic shows a different look,” observes Penn Jillete of the popular magic act Penn & Teller. “Henning came on with this style that matched the ’70s, doing tricks for modern audiences. That opened it up to all the zillions of magic specials that have been on TV since.”

Henning began his wizardry as a boy in Winnipeg, Man. The son of Clarke, a pilot, and Shirley, a home-maker (both now deceased), he witnessed a magician levitate a girl on television when he was 6. Impressed, he asked his mother for a magic kit and by 14 was earning $15 a week levitating his sister at parties. In 1970, Henning graduated from Ontario’s McMaster University, where he studied psychology while moonlighting as a magician. “I did Rotary Club stag stuff in a tuxedo,” he told The New York Times in 1983. “You know, they’d have a belly dancer, a bad pianist, a terrible comedian and me.”

The grind paid off. Committed to his craft, Henning put together a show in Toronto called Spellbound that wowed audiences and attracted American producers. In 1974 he appeared on Broadway in The Magic Show, which ran for several years, making Henning a star. He added TV to his repertoire, appearing annually for eight years. His 1975 NBC special, which he insisted run live and without commercials, garnered an astonishing 50 million viewers.

In 1981, after a brief marriage to self-help author Barbara De Angelis, Henning met artist Debby Douillard at a transcendental meditation school in Fairfield, Iowa. They married by the end of the year, and she helped design sets for his shows. The couple, who never had children, were inseparable after that, traveling the world, including a 1986 trip to India, where they studied with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. That same year Henning sold his illusions to David Copperfield and other magicians and devoted himself to the TM movement full time. He even helped design a theme park, Veda Land, a $1.5 billion venture in Niagara Falls, Ont., that was supposed to feature spiritually themed rides such as the Magic Flying Chariot Ride, where parkgoers would travel through the molecular structure of a rose. After years of planning his colleagues still hope Veda Land will open by 2005.

Not completing the park was a disappointment, but his wife says Henning himself was a happy man. “He left life very fulfilled,” Debbie says, adding they will bury him at sea. “I was with him all the time those last days, holding his hand. In my mind, he told me, ‘See how happy I am? I’m so happy. See that body on the bed? That’s not me. Don’t be unhappy. Be happy because I’m happy.’ It was so beautiful.”

Sophfronia Scott Gregory

Ron Arias in Los Angeles, Champ Clark in Chicago and Cynthia Wang in New York City