Ac­tor and ma­gi­cian whose stage shows mixed sleight of hand with eru­di­tion

The Guardian - Journal - - Obituaries -

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.

Ryan Gil­bey

PHO­TO­GRAPH: AN­TO­NIO OL­MOS FOR THE OB­SERVER

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