Ricky Jay is a polymath of the dark arts. A master of sleight-of-hand and considered by some to be one of the greatest magician living today, he is also a historian of magic, a collector of rare books, a lecturer, a film and television actor, and a co-creator of the firm Deceptive Practices, which supplies “arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis” to film, TV and theatrical companies by using magic and illusions to solve production challenges.
Finally, he is the subject of a fascinating new documentary, “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay,” which opened in New York on April 17.
A combination of extraordinary archival performance footage and a series of lengthy interviews with Jay, it reveals a man who was introduced to magic by his grandfather, then left home at 16 and was taken under the wings of some of the greatest magicians of the time.
Jay spoke to The Arty Semite about discovering magic, his mentors and the Jewish influence on magic and magicians.
Curt Schleier: In the film, you mention that you wanted the magician Al Flosso to perform at your bar mitzvah, and your parents arranged that as a surprise. That seems like a big deal, yet you didn’t seem to get along with your parents. You called it “the only kind thing I remember.”
Ricky Jay: It was a big deal. I just don’t talk about my family — I choose not to — though I appreciate your interest.
But you will talk about your grandfather, Max Katz, an amateur magician who introduced you to the art form.
He taught all the grandchildren magic, and we were all interested in it for a short while. But I never stopped. I also had a fairly normal childhood. I was interested in sports, interested in literature, interested in music. So I didn’t only do magic.
Did you have an epiphany at some point, a realization that you and magic were bashert (intended for each other)?
Nothing like that. I’m trying to think back and come up with the right answer. It was more something I always did than something I felt I must do. In fact, people kept urging me not to do it for a living. Like any Jewish kid, I was told: “Go to college. Get a degree.”
As noted in the film, you received help from famous magicians, especially Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, throughout your career. Were these guys paid to teach you?
No, they weren’t paid. It was a remarkable act of generosity, both to me and my grandfather. My grandfather was a generous man, so he may have wound up paying for some of that. But when I moved to Los Angeles, money never changed hands. You presented what you did, and if those people wanted to talk to you they did. You could have offered them a great sum of money, but if they weren’t interested in pursuing it they never would have done it.
An awful lot of the great magicians — like Houdini, for example — were Jewish. Why do you think that is?
I think the reason there were so many Jewish magicians — and some of the greatest magicians of the 20th century were — is the standard thing we say about Jews and entertainment: It was one of the few professions open to them. Max Malini [born Max Katz Breit], Nate Leipzig — great sleight-of-hand artists who died before I was born, but their legacies were incredibly strong.
Has your Jewish background influenced your work?
Certainly I’ve been influenced to some extent by my background. I’ve been particularly intrigued by stories of the golem. I worked for a while on an illusion involving a golem, but couldn’t get it to work.
Who are the magicians working today whom you admire?
Michael Weber [his partner in Deceptive Practices]; David Roth, a sleight-of-hand artist who is particularly good with coins; Juan Tamiriz, one of the most popular entertainers in Spain, and a one-armed Argentinean, Rene Levand.
You’re still active in the field?
Not as much as I used to be. What I do now is these one-man shows, all directed by David Mamet. That’s my primary venue. I used to do corporate shows. I worked on the streets as a busker. I even opened for rock ’n’ roll shows. I worked comedy clubs. Being able to acquire these various experiences was very important. Deceptive Practices is also consulting on a Houdini musical that is going to star Hugh Jackman.
With all this going on, why make the movie?
The movie was absolutely without question to pay homage to the people who were so generous to me and are utterly remarkable. I think it’s kind of wonderful for people to know about them.
Watch the trailer for ‘Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay’:
This story "The Greatest Living Magician" was written by Curt Schleier.