Ricky Jay Has Died

Ricky Jay Has Died

Ricky Jay has passed away. He was 72, which is of course far too young. It is tempting to go long on both the man and his legacy, but it is unlikely that anything will ever top Mark Singer’s profile of the man from a 1993 issue of the New Yorker. It is worth clicking on and reading in its entirety.

Jay’s specialty was twofold: the history of magic and playing cards. On the first, he wrote books and books and books on the subject. On the second, he thrived with various shows, including his most famous work, Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants. It was a performance met with rapturous praise. That first link will take you to the show itself. But he thrived elsewhere, including on talk shows, flooring hosts with what he could make cards do.

Magician Ricky Jay on Arsenio in 1988

Ricky Jay on David Letterman

Ricky Jay – Late Night with Conan O'Brien (September 25, 2002)

Jay’s magic was not limited to cards though. He had other routines, including a performance of the Cups and Balls that ranks as a positively baffling thing. We know that magic is not real; we are being misled, intentionally. We know this objectively and rationally. We know this is not magic. We know this is not real. And yet, this:

Ricky Jay's Cups and Balls

Jay, of course, is likely familiar for another reason: was an actor who appeared occasionally in movies by Paul Thomas Anderson (he was in both Boogie Nights and Magnolia) and frequently in movies by David Mamet (he was in House of GamesHomicideThe Spanish Prisoner, and Heist among others). In Heist, he played the role of Pinky Pincus, a beloved uncle who doubles as the member of crew of conmen that includes Gene Hackman and Delroy Lindo. In the movie, the crew adds a fifth named Jimmy, a younger guy who is hotheaded. He suspects Hackman no longer has the chops to lead so he takes Pincus aside.

Jimmy asked, “Is he gonna be cool?”

Pincus responded, “My motherfucker is so cool, when he goes to bed, sheep count him.”

It takes something to deliver that line straight-faced and convincingly. It takes something to make that believable and real. Jay had it so much that the line flitters by, just another line. Jay’s performances, like his magic, were so easy to believe. And that, more than anything, is what he brought to the the table throughout his career: the ability to convince us that the lie was the truth, even when we absolutely knew better.


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13 thoughts on “Ricky Jay Has Died

  1. I have always loved the close up magicians. Big, splashy performances are, of course, spectacle, but the kind of sleight of hand that happens right under a persons nose, when they are looking for it, that’s skill and talent. And in a society where people get famous for a single talent, or just for being outrageous, magicians are an under-appreciated lot.

    Ricky Jay was one of the greats, I never tire of watching him work.

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    • There’s really nothing I like better in magic than watching a master like him do a technique that I know well and, no matter how closely I look, I can’t see it. There’s something really beautiful about that. Anybody can fool you with a surprise you’ve never seen before, but with Ricky Jay you could say, “Here it comes…” and watch the hand you know is doing the dirty work and never actually catch it.

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  2. Our family was friends for a number of years with an older magician and ventriloquist who had a million stories himself. One of his favorite books, which soon became one of mine too, was Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women. It’s an endlessly entertaining read.

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