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Ricky Jay, magician whose sleight of hand defied logic or physics, dies at 72

Magician Ricky Jay at a fundraiser in 2011.
Magician Ricky Jay at a fundraiser in 2011. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/ AP)

While other magicians breathed fire, sawed women in half or made entire buildings disappear, Ricky Jay performed remarkable feats using little more than the pads of his fingers. These were, strictly speaking, nothing more than tricks or illusions, sleights of hand performed by a master magician.

But to those who witnessed Mr. Jay up close, turning over a row of red Bee playing cards to reveal an unexpected hand, or flinging them across the room like wild projectiles, his magic tricks were nothing less than works of art, head-scratching, wonder-inducing achievements that made him “perhaps the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive,” as journalist Mark Singer wrote in a 1993 article for the New Yorker.

Mr. Jay, who was also an actor, film consultant and renowned scholar of confidence tricksters and exotic entertainers, was 72 when he died Nov. 25 at his home in Los Angeles. His manager, Winston Simone, said the precise cause was not immediately known.

A heavyset figure who sported dark suits and a short gray beard, Mr. Jay followed his mentor Dai Vernon, a Canadian magician known as the Professor, in treating a deck of cards as a living being, to be carried with seriousness and handled with sensitivity.

Nonetheless, he was also prone to toss a card into the air like a boomerang, then slice it with scissors as it returned toward his hand. In some shows, he impaled a watermelon rind — he dubbed it the “thick pachydermatous outer melon layer” — with a card thrown at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour.

Raised in New York City, Mr. Jay began performing magic tricks at age 4 and went on to hone his act on TV variety shows and on tours with musicians such as Ike and Tina Turner. Long celebrated by fellow magicians, he began to reach an international audience by the early 1990s, receiving a special Obie Award citation for “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants,” which premiered off-Broadway in 1994 and was later performed in England and Australia.

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Originally directed by his friend David Mamet, the one-man show featured nonstop comic patter from Mr. Jay, who invited audience members onstage as he performed tricks with playing cards, a ball and cup and a menagerie of windup toys.

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“Instead of a magician’s cloak, he wears an authoritative, invisible mantle of accumulated traditions,” wrote New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley. Mr. Jay, he added, was “equally at home reciting a melodramatic broadsheet ballad about a card shark and his son, a translation of a poem by François Villon about how a gambler’s money disappears, and the grittier lingo of the contemporary con artist.”

His work was informed by a deep knowledge of “deception in all its forms,” as Mr. Jay once put it. A collector of decaying dice, faded advertisements for circus artists and magic books that dated to the 16th century, he probably knew “more about the history of American conjuring than anyone else,” Marcus McCorison, a former president of the American Antiquarian Society, told the New Yorker.

While Mr. Jay was loath to reveal the secrets of his tricks, he was hired to create cinematic deceptions for movies such as “The Escape Artist” (1982) and “The Natural” (1984), for which he taught Robert Redford how to pull a coin out of someone’s ear.

With his friend Michael Weber, a fellow magician, he formed the consulting company Deceptive Practices, which offered “arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis” and devised the wheelchair for Gary Sinise’s character in “Forrest Gump” (1994), a military veteran and double amputee.

“Since Gary was unwilling to actually have his legs amputated for the film, they had to call us in,” Mr. Jay explained to the Los Angeles Times.

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He also performed as an actor, appearing as a cardsharp in the first season of the HBO Western “Deadwood,” as a villain in the James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies” and as a cameraman in “Boogie Nights,” director Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 epic about the California porn industry. And he was featured in “Heist” (2001) and other films directed by Mamet, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who said they bonded over a shared interest in fraudsters and cons.

But he seemed most at home performing his deceptions live, in front of small, rapturous audiences in theaters or at private parties. Once, while performing at a New Year’s Eve event in Los Angeles, Mr. Jay was asked by a guest named Mort to “do something truly amazing,” according to Singer’s profile in the New Yorker.

Mr. Jay asked him to name a card, and Mort settled on the three of hearts.

“After shuffling,” Singer wrote, “Jay gripped the deck in the palm of his right hand and sprung it, cascading all 52 cards so that they traveled the length of the table and pelted an open wine bottle.” After asking Mort to name his card once again, Mr. Jay instructed the guest to “look inside the bottle.”

“Mort discovered, curled inside the neck, the three of hearts,” Singer continued. “The party broke up immediately.”

Richard Jay Potash was born in Brooklyn on June 26, 1946, and guarded the details of his early life as fiercely as the secrets of his tricks. He told the New Yorker that his family moved from Brooklyn to the New Jersey suburbs when he was a boy, and recalled that his father used Brylcreem on his hair and Colgate on his teeth.

“Once, when I was 10, I switched the tubes,” Mr. Jay said. “All you need to know about my father is that after he brushed his teeth with Brylcreem he put the toothpaste in his hair.”

As a child performer, he found early support from his grandfather Max Katz, an accountant who served as president of the Society of American Magicians and introduced him to leading illusionists such as Tony Slydini, Francis Carlyle and his mentor, Vernon. He left home when he was 15, moving in with a friend’s family, and studied at schools including Cornell University before dropping out to perform full time.

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Mr. Jay wrote several books — including “Cards as Weapons” (1977) and “Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women” (1986), a history of unusual entertainers — and numerous articles on magic and magical history.

Survivors include his wife, Chrisann Verges, a film and television producer.

While Mr. Jay’s legacy seemed firmly secured in recent years — he was the subject of the 2012 documentary “Deceptive Practice” — he said that he sometimes struggled to convince people that his tricks were those of an artist, little different from the work of an actor in the theater or a musician in the symphony.

“I’d have been more easily understood in Elizabethan times,” he told People magazine in 1987. “All my life I have been on the fringes of this world and have been seen as something of an eccentric. I am eccentric. It seems people are now willing to attach some label of respectability to me. That is not displeasing. It is rather gratifying. But it has made me no less eccentric.”

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