Actor and magician whose stage shows mixed sleight of hand with erudition
Ricky Jay, who has died aged 72, was a highly respected magician, bibliophile and raconteur who occasionally also acted in films, primarily those directed by his friend David Mamet. These included the thrillers The Spanish Prisoner (1997) and Redbelt (2008) and the movie-business comedy State and Main (2000). Mamet also directed him in several one-man magic shows, as well as a 1996 HBO film of his off-Broadway hit Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants, which introduced a wider audience to his unique mix of magic, erudition and lip-smacking verbosity.
In a long New Yorker magazine profile in 1993, Mark Singer called
Jay “perhaps the most gifted sleightof-hand artist alive”. His grey beard, moustache and the mane of grey hair receding on his scalp gave him the look of an ageing, whiskery lion.
And though he could be chilling on screen – he was quietly threatening as a gambler in Mamet’s film debut House of Games (1987) – there was also a softness to him which came out in his boyish enthusiasm for all things antiquated, especially language, and in the tenderness with which he handled his deck. “He’s my hero,” said Mamet. “I’ve never seen anybody better at what he does.” Steve Martin, who also started out in magic, called Jay “the intellectual elite of magicians”.
With his excellence at magic and sleight of hand, it was inevitable that he would be called to assist on films that dealt in or touched on those subjects. So it was that he served as a technical consultant on pictures including The Escape Artist (1982), The Natural (1984), Wolf (1994) and Ocean’s Thirteen (2007), as well as earning more exotic credits on Leap of Faith (1992), where he was listed as “consultant: cons and frauds”, and Forrest Gump (1994), for which he was “illusion wheelchair designer”, having come up with the wheelchair to help convince audiences that Gary Sinise was a double amputee. The consultancy firm he started with Michael Weber was called Deceptive Practices.
He both advised on and appeared in The Prestige (2006), Christopher Nolan’s thriller about feuding magicians. Roles unrelated to magic included two films by Paul Thomas Anderson, Boogie Nights (1997), set in the porn industry, and the sprawling, multi-strand drama Magnolia (1999), in which
Jay also provided the portentous narration. He could be seen in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and in the first season of the television western Deadwood (2004).
Jay claimed to have large gaps in his memory, though he was also averse to discussing his parents. Of their take on his particular skills, he once said: “It’s safe to say that my parents just didn’t get it or didn’t get me, and we had no rapport.” It is known, however, that he was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Samuel Potash and Shirley Katz, and that the family later moved to New Jersey.
“If you ask me for specific dates, we’re in trouble,” he warned Singer. Under the influence of his maternal grandfather, Max, himself an amateur magician, Jay developed an interest in magic. He performed his first trick at a magicians’ barbecue at the age of four. While still a child, he appeared on TV magic shows.
As an adolescent, he hung out at magic shops in Manhattan and entered competitions at conventions. “I always won,” he said. “But the whole thing soured me on the idea of competitions within an art.” He lived away from home on and off between the ages of 15 and 18, when he left for good for Ithaca, New York. He attended five colleges and enrolled at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration but claimed to be unable to recall whether he had ever graduated from high school.
Later jobs included working as a carnival barker, selling encyclopedias and practising accountancy on Wall Street, all while honing his magic act, which
Jay at the Old Vic, London, 1999 was by now starting to incorporate the engaging, arcane, improvised patter that would become one of his trademarks. In 1970 he appeared for the first time on The Tonight Show, and proceeded to build up his profile on the road, both at his own gigs and as the support for musical acts including Ike and Tina Turner and Emmylou Harris.
Moving to Los Angeles, he became a successful jobbing magician and landed more TV spots. He created stories and personalities for the cards themselves, performed stunning feats of recall, shared bizarre historical miscellany and perfected tricks such as throwing cards into watermelons and wine bottles or making them return to him, boomerang-style.
He also wrote a series of influential books on magic including Cards as Weapons (1977), Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women (1986) and Jay’s Journal of Anomalies (2001). Marcus McCorison, a former president of the American Antiquarian Society, called him “a deeply serious scholar. I think he knows more about the history of American conjuring than anyone else.”
Jay relished the simple delight and amazement prompted by his sophisticated tricks, which he would often spend years practising before he ever showed them to an audience. “It’s more about surprise than anything else,” he said in 2002. “I think surprise is a wonderful emotion.”
He is survived by his wife, the film and television producer Chrisann Verges, whom he married in 2002.