Remembering the Sleight of Hand and Deadpan Humor of Ricky Jay, Dead at 72

Watch some of this legendary magician's most mesmerizing card stunts.

Ricky Jay (Photo credit: Creative Commons, David Shankbone)
Ricky Jay (Photo credit: Creative Commons, David Shankbone)

To say Ricky Jay did card tricks is akin to saying Michelangelo painted ceilings or that William Shakespeare wrote plays. Each of them were, in their respective mediums, a timeless, world-class master of their craft.

Born in Brooklyn, but raised in New Jersey, Jay began performing magic tricks on TV at age 7 and became a successful working magician as an adult. But it was his friendship that playwright David Mamet that helped make him a household name. Mamet produced several one-man shows for Jay that showcased his singular talent and made him incredibly popular. That friendship also ignited Jay’s acting career, as he went on to appear in several of Mamet’s films and other notable movies like Boogie NightsMagnolia, the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies as well as the critically acclaimed TV series Deadwood. 

Jay was also a voracious collector of magical arcana and student of the history of magic. He wrote numerous scholarly articles and authored two very witty and erudite books about the subject. This academic-like rigor combined with his mind-boggling facility with a deck of cards fueled the public’s fascination with him. (But he could also astound with other sleight-of-hand magic, like this cups and balls routine.)

In a memorable 1993 New Yorker profile of Jay, the actor and comedian Steve Martin summed up Jay’s magical skill and knowledge thusly: “I sort of think of Ricky as the intellectual élite of magicians. I’ve had experience with magicians my whole life. He’s expertly able to perform and yet he knows the theory, history, literature of the field. Ricky’s a master of his craft. You know how there are those teachers of creative writing who can’t necessarily write but can teach? Well, Ricky can actually do everything.”

Watch Jay confound and confuse in one of his most popular one-man shows, produced by Mamet, the 1996 TV special Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants:

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