Ricky Jay is dead. Possibly the most respected man in modern magic—both a veteran showman, with an understated demeanor that belied his unparalleled skill at sleight of hand, and one of the great, passionate scholars of the art—Jay was an engagingly inward-facing figure among a world of extroverts, a slightly schlubby, ever-droll cardshark/sharp who would never be caught dead in spandex or a cape. That combination of quiet confidence and casual mystique was irresistible to many, including numerous Hollywood directors, who frequently cast Jay to add a bit of real-world magic to their TV shows and films.
Any good mystique requires a bit of actual mystery; Jay was famously reticent to talk about (or encourage research into) his childhood, only noting that he was born in Brooklyn, grew up in New Jersey, and began performing magic for audiences by the age of 4. Although versed in virtually every branch of the discipline, Jay’s true artistry lay in cards: He could make the damn things dance on a whim, whether it was finding exactly the right target a trick demanded, or hurling one with such expert force that he could pierce the “thick, pachydermatous outer melon layer” of a watermelon. (At the time of his death today, at the age of 70, the author of Cards As Weapons no longer held the Guinness record for throwing a playing card, having been usurped by a younger, faster competitor. Still: It’s a hell of a thing to see.)
The above clip comes from a taped version of Jay’s Ricky Jay And His 52 Assistants, which, like several of the master magician’s one-man shows, was directed by his old friend David Mamet. In Jay, Mamet seems to have found something akin to a real-life version of the charismatic conmen he so frequently wrote about, casting him in parts in several of his films. Similarly enamored: Paul Thomas Anderson, who gave Jay a role in Boogie Nights, and made him the voice of his magical realist odyssey Magnolia. He also appeared as a Bond henchman, a bit-part publicist in Mystery Men, a lazy veteran magician in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, and, in one of his longest roles, a casino operator in the first season of HBO’s Deadwood. If you wanted your movie to be a little stranger—and you could catch his interest—you called upon Ricky Jay.
For all his intermittent work as a character actor, though, Jay never pretended that it was anything but a side gig: The man had happily given his life away to magic. That life-long dedication is best represented in a celebrated New Yorker article, “Secrets Of The Magus,” that ran in 1993, which aimed to explain why the dour-looking guy in the suits commanded so much attention and respect from his peers (and from film and television producers, who frequently brought him in as a consultant and effects designer, even when he wasn’t acting.). Much of the article centers on Jay’s obsessive (and expensive) interest in and acquisition of books, both magical and otherwise. (At one point, referencing a split of a lot of rare calligraphy documents with a friend, Jay notes, “I kept all the images related to armless calligrapher, and Nicolas got all the calligraphers with arms.”) The piece, by Marc Singer, also touches on Jay’s bitterly brief window as prospective curator of one of the world’s largest libraries of magical books and artifacts; in a real “God damn it, life,” sort of twist, it ended up in the hands of that hated extrovert, David Copperfield, instead.
Ricky Jay was one of those rare people who devote themselves purely to an art, and who bend almost every aspect of their existence to its perfection. He made the movement of cards across a table—and really, the whole big, beautiful menagerie of lies, misdirection, talent, and outright spectacle that is the history of people tricking each other for fun and profit—his religion, and he practiced it with the fervor of the fanatic. And yet he was also human and warm, funny and personable in a way few magicians (so frequently caught up in the swirl of persona and flash) could match. He would trick you, not because he was cruel or avaricious, but because there is a beauty in the trick, in the moment when your mind, against its will, is forced to briefly entertain the possibility that magic might be real. The world is less weird, and more mundane, without him in it, and that’s a god damn shame.