Brow Beat

Magician, Actor, Writer, and Historian Ricky Jay Has Died at 72

Ricky Jay on a red carpet.
Ricky Jay at the Broadway premiere of Leap of Faith in 2012.
Michael N. Todaro/Getty Images

Ricky Jay, the greatest sleight-of-hand magician of his age, died Saturday at home in Los Angeles at the age of 72, the New York Times reports. Jay’s unparalleled skill with a deck of cards led him from stage to screen, where he had memorable roles in the films of David Mamet and Paul Thomas Anderson, as well as a stint as a minor Bond villain in Tomorrow Never Dies. Jay also employed his encyclopedic knowledge of illusion and con artistry to write several acclaimed books about the history of magic, and as a sideline, worked as a consultant to film studios on matters of deception and illusion.

Jay, born Richard Jay Potash, was the grandson of Max Katz, a Brooklyn-based accountant and amateur magician who, as the head of a magician’s society called the Knights of Magic, introduced his grandson to the world of deception and misdirection. Jay, who liked to say as little about his relationship with his own parents as possible, followed in his grandfather’s footsteps instead, performing magic for the first time at the age of seven. He worked his way up the club circuit to a 1969 Tonight Show appearance, and spent the 1970s and 1980s on a variety of variety show appearances while opening for musical acts that you wouldn’t expect to have a had a magician (Al Jarreau, for instance). In 1976, Jay showed off his card-throwing skills as a guest on Doug Henning’s World of Magic, and performed a trick situated right at the center of the Venn diagram of his interests: pulling four queens from a deck in the style of an American magician, a European magician, and—here’s where his eyes light up—as a 19th-century mountebank, complete with period-appropriate patter:

Jay’s skill with a deck of cards landed him a role in David Mamet’s 1987 film House of Games, where he traded his usual erudite hyperarticulation for flat vowels and pure menace:

He worked with Mamet again in 1988’s Things Change and 1991’s Homicide. In the decade that followed, he and Mark Weber founded Deceptive Practices, a consulting firm that provided film studios with advice on all manner of tricks and cons, historical and modern. In 1994, Jay, whose fame had grown exponentially because of an extraordinary New Yorker profile by Mark Singer the previous year, appeared off-Broadway in a celebrated one-man-show called Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants. Mamet directed, and the show sold out its complete run before previews began. Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, which Jay revived several times over the years, includes a performance of the same card trick Jay did on the Doug Henning show decades earlier. Comparing his delivery in the 1996 TV movie of the show to the earlier version provides a way to benchmark what Jay had learned over the ensuing years: He’d leaned into his obsession with the history of magic and made his patter bone-dry. In a representative excerpt featured in PBS’s American Masters, Jay delivers a monologue about the history of three-card monte and the life of Canada Bill Jones while showing off his impeccable card handling:

Jay’s film career hit its saturation point in 1997, a year in which he appeared in Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, played an adult movie cameraman in Boogie Nights, and popped up as a cyberterrorist in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. He reunited with Anderson for a double role in 1999’s Magnolia, appearing on screen as a game show producer and voicing the narrator, whose opening monologue plays to Jay’s talent for rattling off anecdotes of the distant past. In the aughts, he had a recurring role as a card sharp in the first season of HBO’s Deadwood, and continued his collaborations with Mamet, showing up in State and Main, Heist, and Redbelt.

As a writer, Jay specialized in excavating long-forgotten entertainers in books like 1986’s Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women, 2011’s Celebrations of Curious Characters (an anthology of brief historical sketches Jay wrote for KCRW in the aughts), and his most recent book, a 2016 profile of an armless, legless 18th century German entertainer with the period-appropriate title Matthias Buchinger: “The Greatest German Living” by Ricky Jay, Whose Peregrinations In Search of the “Little Man of Nuremberg” are herein Revealed. Jay also served as the curator of the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts, an extraordinary collection of magic books, posters, and artifacts, until David Copperfield bought it out from under him and relocated it to Las Vegas in the 1990s. Jay was the subject of a 2013 documentary, Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay:

Jay is survived by his wife Chrisann Verges.