Ricky Jay may not have been known to all, but he was one of the most dedicated entertainers to have ever lived. Ricky, who died Saturday in Los Angeles, was famous for his work as a bit player in many movies, as a film consultant, and as an author, but it was his enduring and inspiring career in magic that set him apart.
The art of conjuring was his life’s work, not only as a performer but as one of the world’s most studied historians on the subject of magic and deception. It was his combined dedication to practicing sleight of hand and his relentless pursuit of the art’s history that made Ricky Jay one of the greatest to have ever worked in his field. He did not pursue magic as a means to fame and glory, but because he was an ardent and obsessed fan.
A true magic show is much more than a few tricks performed by someone with knowledge of deception. The effect great magicians have on their audience is an absolute sense of wonder, whether they perform for 1,000 people or just one.
Ricky’s skill and knowledge surely made him one of the most talented performers of all time, but it was his unique sense of humor and style on stage that set him apart. His use of vocabulary and self-deprecation as a way to engage his audience was entrancing and unparalleled. A performance by Ricky wasn’t a parlor show or something to be shoved into the background of a cocktail party, but an encapsulation of his ability to connect to a crowd through charisma and wit.
An eccentric and extremely private person, his on-stage persona was perhaps one of his greatest illusions. After starting a career in magic at age four, Ricky’s life was spent training himself to gain the confidence of everyone around him, thus perfecting his craft. He gained the attention of many other talented entertainers, particularly in film, who were drawn to his skill and knowledge in the art of deception.
David Mamet, who counted himself as one of Ricky’s closest friends, consulted with him for several films, which led to a long career of working in front of and behind the camera. Ricky and his company, Deceptive Practices, provided solutions and advice to many prominent movies, including a special wheelchair for Lieutenant Dan’s “missing” legs in “Forrest Gump.”
Ricky began his career in front of the camera at an early age, performing magic whenever he got the opportunity. Although he preferred a smaller room without cameras, his TV persona was masterful from the beginning. He seemed to effortlessly riff with audiences while also dazzling them with his mastered menu of card tricks. Even performing in major movies, Ricky easily morphed into a mild-mannered and quick-talking supporting character, most notably as Pinky in “Heist.”
His career serves as a reminder that a life of incredible achievement and talent can go largely unnoticed by the masses, although this never deterred Ricky. Few performers fully transform into pure entertainers as easily as he seemed to. Often invited to perform on popular talk shows when the world at large had dismissed magic as silly, he continually proved his ability to entertain and delight with a simple deck of playing cards.
His knowledge of the craft and dedication to learning is unlikely to ever be matched by anyone else. He famously didn’t share many of his secrets even with his most trusted mentors and protégés, so many of his most baffling illusions have been laid to rest with him.
Ricky didn’t like playing to huge crowds or groups of other magicians because he didn’t want to break the connection he formed with an audience. He loved the bond he was able to create by deceiving people, and they loved it too. Ricky believed in the spell of pure entertainment, and his love for magic was fueled by the look of wonder and delight on the faces of his fans. Whether or not they believed what they were seeing was truly magic, they believed in the enchantment of Ricky Jay.