Richard Jay Potash (born 1948), known professionally as Ricky Jay, is an American stage magician, actor, and writer. In a profile for the New Yorker, Mark Singer called Jay "perhaps the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive". Jay is best known for performing sleight of hand, card tricks, card throwing, memory feats, and stage patter. He has also written extensively on magic and its history. He has acted in the films Heist, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia and in the HBO series Deadwood.
Jay prefers not to discuss the details of his childhood. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, on an unspecified date, probably in 1948, to a middle-class Jewish family, and grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He has never spoken publicly about his parents, with the exception of a single anecdote: "My father oiled his hair with Brylcreem and brushed his teeth with Colgate," he recalled. âHe kept his toothpaste in the medicine cabinet and the Brylcreem in a closet about a foot away. Once, when I was ten, I switched the tubes. All you need to know about my father is that after he brushed his teeth with Brylcreem he put the toothpaste in his hair.â His grandfather, Max Katz, was a certified public accountant and amateur magician who introduced Jay to magic.
Jay first performed in public at the age of four, in 1953, when he appeared on the television program "Time For Pets". He is most likely the youngest magician to perform a full magic act on TV, the first magician to ever play comedy clubs, and probably the first magician to open for a rock and roll band. At New York's The Electric Circus in the 1960s, he performed on a bill between Ike and Tina Turner and Timothy Leary, who lectured about LSD.
He quickly developed a "cult" following among magic aficionados, and a reputation for sleight-of-hand feats that baffle even his colleagues. In his 1993 New Yorker profile of Jay, Mark Singer related the following story from playwright David Mamet and theatre director Gregory Mosher:
Some years ago, late one night in the bar of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago, [Jay] was performing magic with a deck of cards. Also present was a friend of Mamet and Mosherâs named Christ Nogulich, the director of food and beverage at the hotel. After twenty minutes of disbelief-suspending manipulations, Jay spread the deck face up on the bar counter and asked Nogulich to concentrate on a specific card but not to reveal it. Jay then assembled the deck face down, shuffled, cut it into two piles, and asked Nogulich to point to one of the piles and name his card. âThree of clubs,â Nogulich said, and he was then instructed to turn over the top card. He turned over the three of clubs. Mosher, in what could be interpreted as a passive-aggressive act, quietly announced, âRicky, you know, I also concentrated on a card.â After an interval of silence, Jay said, âThatâs interesting, Gregory, but I only do this for one person at a time.â Mosher persisted: âWell, Ricky, I really was thinking of a card.â Jay paused, frowned, stared at Mosher, and said, âThis is a distinct change of procedure.â A longer pause. âAll rightâ"what was the card?â âTwo of spades.â Jay nodded, and gestured toward the other pile, and Mosher turned over its top card. The deuce of spades. A small riot ensued.
Three of Jay's one-man shows, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, Ricky Jay: On the Stem, and Ricky Jay: A Rogue's Gallery, were directed by Mamet, who has also cast him in a number of his films. Jay played Gupta, a henchman to villain Elliot Carver, in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, and also appeared in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights and Magnolia, as well as Christopher Nolan's The Prestige.
A collector and historian of note, he was a student and friend of Dai Vernon, whom he called "the greatest living contributor to the magical art." He is an avid collector of rare books and manuscripts, art, and other artifacts connected to the history of magic, gambling, unusual entertainments, and frauds and confidence games. He opposes any public revelations of the techniques of magic.
Jay joined the cast of the HBO western drama Deadwood as a recurrent character and writer for the first season in 2004, playing card sharp Eddie Sawyer. He wrote the episode "Jewel's Boot Is Made for Walking". He left the series at the end of the first season.
Until recently, Jay was listed in the Guinness Book of Records for throwing a playing card 190 ft at 90 miles per hour (140Â km/h) (the current record is 216 feet (66Â m) by Rick Smith, Jr.). He can throw a playing card into a watermelon rind (which he refers to as the "thick, pachydermatous outer melon layer" of "the most prodigious of household fruits") from ten paces. In addition, he is able to throw a card into the air like a boomerang and cut it cleanly in half with a pair of "giant scissors" upon its return. In his shows, he often attacks plastic animals with thrown cards in "self defense."
As an expert on magic, gambling, con games and unusual entertainment, Jay has long been a go-to consultant on Hollywood projects, beginning with his work on Francis Ford Coppola's production of Caleb Deschanel's The Escape Artist. Other early work included teaching Robert Redford how to manipulate coins for The Natural, and working with Douglas Trumbull on his groundbreaking Showscan project, New Magic (1983).
In the early 1990s, Jay and Michael Weber created a firm, Deceptive Practices, providing "Arcane Knowledge on a Need-to-Know Basis" to film, television and stage productions. By offering both vast historical expertise and creative invention, they have been able to provide surprisingly practical solutions to real production challenges. Among many accomplishments, they designed the wheelchair that "magically" hid Gary Sinise's legs in Forrest Gump, as well as the glass that "drinks itself" used by the gorilla in Congo. For the Broadway production of "Angels in America, part 2: Perestroika", they designed an illusion "in which a man climbs to the top of a ladder of light and vanishes in midair."
Other projects they have worked on include: The Prestige, The Illusionist, Sneakers, Leap of Faith, Wolf, The Parent Trap, I Love Trouble, The Great Buck Howard, Heartbreakers, and Oceans Thirteen.
Additionally, he has worked with libraries and museums on their collections, including the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, CA.
Lectures and exhibitions
Jay has authored numerous articles and delivered many lecture/demonstrations on such subjects as conjuring literature, con games, sense perception, and unusual entertainments. Among his presentations:
- "Sleight and Shadow", at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
- "Belknap Visitor in the Humanities" lecture on the relationship between magicians and mediums, at Princeton University
- "Doing Likewise: Imitation, Emulation, and Mimesis", at the New York Institute of Humanities, hosted by Jonathan Miller.
- "Hocus Pocus in Perfection: Four Hundred Years of Conjuring and Conjuring Literature," the Harold Smith Memorial Lecture at Brown University.
- "Splendors of Decaying Celluloid", with Errol Morris, Rosamond Purcell and Bill Morrison at the New York Institute for the Humanities.
- "The Origins of the Confidence Game", at the conference of Police Against Confidence Crime.
- "Chirosophi: Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Conjuring Literature," at the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
- "Fast and Loose: The Techniques and Literature of Cheating", at the William Andrew Clark Memorial Library, UCLA.
- "The Mystery of Fasting Impostors," and "The Avant Garde Art of Armless Calligraphers", at Amherst College.
- "Sense, Perception, & Nonsense" at the University of Rhode Island Festival of the Arts.
- "Illusion as Truth", at the International Design Conference in Aspen (keynote address).
- "Prose & Cons: The Early Literature of Cheating", at the New York Public Library (Pforzheimer Lecture Series) and the Chicago Humanities Festival.
- "Magic & Science", at the TED Conference in Monterey, California.
Jay has also lectured at Harvard University, USC, the Grolier Club, the Hammer Museum, Getty Center, and Town Hall Theatre in New York City. In 1999 he guest-curated an exhibit at the Harvard Theater Collection entitled "The Imagery of Illusion: Nineteenth Century Magic and Deception."
Exhibitions of material from his collections have been mounted at The Hammer Museum, The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, UC Davis, Christine Burgin Gallery, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, and UCLA's Clark Library. He has loaned material to the Getty Center (for their exhibit "Devices of Wonder"), the Skirball Museum, the Huntington Library, and the Whitney Museum of Art.
Jay is the subject of the feature documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.
- The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (October 26, 1970)
- Saturday Night Live (1977)
- "The Ricky Jay Magic Show" â" BBC special (1978)
- The Paul Daniels Magic Show (1985)
- Arsenio (1988)
- Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women â" 1 hour special for American TV (1989)
- The Secret Cabaret (two series made by Open Media for Channel 4, UK)
- Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants â" 1 hour version of his Off-Broadway show, taped for HBO (1996)
- Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pranksters, Jokesters and Ricky Jay (1996)
- "Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light," PBS American Masters (1996)
- The X-Files â" "The Amazing Maleeni" (2000)
- MythBusters â" Episode 20, "Exploding Jawbreaker, Static Cannon, Deadly Playing Cards." Ricky demonstrated card throwing, and the speed of his throws was clocked. (2003)
- Deadwood â" Eddie Sawyer (2004), Season 1
- Tales From The Crypt (Unknown)
- The Unit (2007)
- Kidnapped (2007)
- Lie to Me (2009)
- FlashForward â" Flosso (2010)
- "60 Minutes" â" Interviewed by Morley Safer for segment, "Pigeon Fever" (2010)
- "The Simpsons" â" plays himself in episode "The Great Simpsina" (2011)
- "Teen Titans Go!" â" plays voice in Robin's head in episode "The Date" (2013)
- House of Games (1987)
- Things Change (1988)
- Homicide (1991)
- Leap of Faith (1992) â" Cons and Frauds Consultant
- The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky (1995) (TV)
- The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
- Boogie Nights (1997)
- Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) â" Henry Gupta
- Magnolia (1999)
- Mystery Men (1999)
- State and Main (2000)
- Heist (2001)
- Heartbreakers (2001)
- Incident at Loch Ness (2004)
- Last Days (2005)
- The Illusionist (2006)
- The Prestige (2006)
- Redbelt (2008)
- The Great Buck Howard (2008)
- The Brothers Bloom (2009)
- "A Midsummer Nightâs Dream" (1982); produced by Joseph Papp for The New York Shakespeare Festival.
- "Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants" (1994)
- "Ricky Jay: On The Stem" (2002)
- "Ricky Jay: A Rogueâs Gallery" (2009)
He also performed on the 2005 BBC Radio adaptation of David Mamet's "Faustus."
When not performing, Ricky Jay collects rare books and artifacts. He is the author of several books:
- Cards as Weapons (1977), a book that has been referred to in the New Yorker as "...diverting and richly informative.". Its rarity and the card-throwing technique described in the book figured in an episode of Jonathan Creek, "The Three Gamblers." The book was also mentioned by author Ricky Jay on 20th episode of Mythbusters, when asked whether he had heard about the "Deadly Playing Cards" myth.
- Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women (1986)
- Many Mysteries Unraveled: Conjuring Literature in America 1786â"1874 (1990)
- The Magic Magic Book (1994)
- Jay's Journal of Anomalies (2001)
- Dice: Deception, Fate, and Rotten Luck (with photographs by Rosamond Purcell. (2003)
- Extraordinary Exhibitions: The Wonderful Remains of an Enormous Head, The Whimsiphusicon & Death to the Savage Unitarians (2005) â" a collection of 17th, 18th, and 19th-century broadsides
- 'Twixt Two Worlds or, The The Uninvited Guest: A Magician At The Seance (broadside catalogue) (2005)
- Ricky Jay Plays Poker (2006)
- Magic: 1400sâ"1950s (with Mike Caveney, Jim Steinmeyer, edited by Noel Daniel) (2009)
- Celebrations of Curious Characters (2010)
Ricky Jay has contributed to several projects in the music world. Most notably the 2007 Sony release "Ricky Jay Plays Poker," a box set containing a CD of poker-related songs (by Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, Townes Van Zandt, Patsy Cline, Lorne Greene, Howard Da Silva, O.V. Wright, and several others), a DVD featuring Ricky Jay discussing and performing notable feats of card table deception, and a box of Ricky Jay playing cards.
He performed on the 2 disc set of Hal Willner's Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys, as well as its follow-up.
He appeared in the music video for Bob Dylan's "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,", from the album "Love and Theft". During the production of the video, a screwdriver reportedly fell from the rafters and lodged in Jay's hand.
He also appeared in the video for the Jerry Garcia/David Grisman single "The Thrill Is Gone," which is available on the DVD of the "Grateful Dawg" documentary.
- Official website
- Ricky Jay Archive at the Magic Newswire website
- Ricky Jay at the Internet Movie Database
- San Francisco Chronicle review of "Extraordinary Exhibitions: Broadsides From the Collection of Ricky Jay" during 2005 exhibition
- "Secrets of Magus" 1993 New Yorker profile