“Magician, Actor, Special Effects Consultant Ricky Jay Dead at 70 (or 72)” by S.M. O’Connor

Stage magician and character actor Ricky Jay is dead at seventy or seventy-two. Born Richard Jay Potash in Brooklyn, there is some dispute over whether he was born in 1946 or ’48.[1]  Undoubtedly, someone will be able to produced irrefutable proof of when he was born in the next few days, but adding mystery to the life of famous magician is no bad thing. Jay was reticent about his childhood in interviews.[2]

In his youth, he sported a long heard of hair worn forward, a long beard, and no mustache.  As he grew older and developed the receding hairline familiar to young fans, he cut his hair short, trimmed his beard, and grew a mustasche.

His silver screen credits include four David Mamet films: the con game film House of Games (1987), the con game film The Spanish Prisoner (1997), the cynical comedy State and Main (2000), and the martial arts film Redbelt (2008).  His death in one of these films is gutting to the hero and audience members.  Jay also appeared in two films written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson: Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999).  He was the narrator of Magnolia.  Later, he was Narrator of The Brothers Bloom (2008), which is dramedy (comedy-drama) about con men brothers.

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He was improbably cast as Henry Gupta, a computer hacker who works for psychopathic media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).  Being the #3 villain (the dog-kicker) in a James Bond film is a big deal in terms of establishing stature world-wide.

He had a small but important role as an American stage magician (“Milton the Magician”) performing in 19th Century England in Christopher Nolan‘s The Prestige (2006).   At the beginnings of their careers, he employs both Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) as shills, as well as Angier’s wife, Julia McCullough (Piper Perabo) as an on-stage assistant.  It is her death in a preventable accident that causes the obsessive, deadly rivalry between Angier and Borden.

Jay briefly appeared on screen in the meta-fictional comedy Incident at Loch Ness (2004), in which he played himself. He was one of many celebrities and more obscure filmmakers who played themselves in Incident at Loch Ness.  In his case, he was playing a dinner guest of the famous German director Werner Herzog, who is the subject of the mockumentary.

In addition to his film credits, Jay also made frequent appearances on television.  He appeared on all the major late-night talk shows and acted in a number of dramas.  His first television role was in “Red Dog Blues,” the penultimate episode of Season 3 of the detective series Simon & Simon (1981-1989), in which he played “Bird.”  James Avery (1945-2013), who went on to become famous as Uncle Phil on the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996), and Robert Englund, who went on to become famous as the monster Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films, also had supporting roles in that episode, as did Cleavon Little (1939-1992), who was already famous as the star of Blazing Saddles (1974).  He had a recurring role on Kidnapped (2006-2007).

Jay appeared in the science fiction shows The X-Files (1993-2002) and FlashForward (2009-2010).  In a single episode of Season 7 The X-Files, “The Amazing Maleeni,” Jay played Herman and Albert Pinchbeck.  The episode was written for him.  Executive Producer Frank Spotnitz (who is currently produced The Man in the High Castle) wanted an episode about stage magic and Ricky Jay was his favorite magician.  Screenwriter Vince Gilligan (who later created Breaking Bad) wrote the episode.  On FlashForward, Jay played villain Ted Flosso, a representative of the conspiracy that caused everyone on Earth to lose consciousness for 137 seconds, during which time they gained glimpses of things they would do or could do six months in the future.[3]  He appeared in three episodes.

Another recurring role he played was Agent Kern on Mamet’s show, The Unit (2006-2009), which is about a fictional version of Delta Force (an elite unit of the U.S. Army that fights unconventional warfare against terrorists and the like).  Agent Kern appeared in four episodes.

He played cardsharp Eddie Sawyer in Season 1 of the western series Deadwood (2004-2006). In “The Great Simpsina,” the eighteenth episode of the 22nd Season of The Simpsons, Jay and three other famous stage magicians – David Copperfield and Penn & Teller – provided voices for fictional versions of themselves.

Jay was a master of a type of stage magic called prestidigitation, also known as sleight of hand and legerdemain.  He could throw playing cards with sufficient force and speed that they would become embedded in a watermelon.  Mamet directed the Off-Broadway stage shows Ricky Jay and His Fifty-Two Assistants (1994), Ricky Jay: On the Stem (2002), and Ricky Jay: A Rogue’s Gallery (2009). A historian of stage magic, in addition to being a practitioner, he wrote or co-wrote ten books: Cards as Weapons, published in 1977; Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women – Unique, Eccentric, and Amazing Entertainers: Stone Eaters, Mind Readers, Poison Resisters, Daredevils, Singing Mice, etc., etc., etc., published in 1986; Many Mysteries Unraveled: Conjuring Literature in America 1786-1874, published in 1990; The Magic Magic Book, published in 1994; Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, published in 2001; Dice: Deception, Fate, and Rotten Luck, published in 2002; Extraordinary Exceptions: Broadsides from the Collection of Ricky Jay, published in 2005; Magic: 1400s-1950s, published in 2009; Celebrations of Curious Characters, published in 2010; and Matthias Buchinger: “The Greatest German Living,” published in 2016.  Ricky Jay Plays Poker is an audio compact disc.  He was a contributor for Encyclopædia Britannica and the Cambridge Guide to American Theater.

Jay was the subject of two documentaries.  Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (2012).  In 2015, P.B.S. aired Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice as part of the 29th Season of the American Masters series.

He was also a special effects consultant who worked on movies behind the scenes. The first such film was The Escape Artist (1982), which was the first film directed by Caleb Deschanel, who is a famous cinematographer and the father of actresses Emily Deschanel and Zooey Deschanel.  In the 1990s, with his business partner Michael Weber, Jay founded the firm Deceptive Practices, which produced the trick wheel chair that made Gary Sinese look like a double amputee in Forest Gump (1994). They also worked on The Illusionist (2006) and Ocean’s Thirteen (2007).  In a tribute on Twitter, Christopher McQuarrie, the screenwriter and director of Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015) attributed the climax of the opera sequence in that film to Jay.

Ricky Jay died on Sunday, November 24, 2018.  He is survived by his wife, Chrisann Verges, a television producer and production manager whom he wed in 2002.

ENDNOTES

[1] Anita Gates, “Ricky Jay, Gifted Magician, Actor and Author, Is Dead at 70,” The New York Times, 25 November, 2018

[2] Ibid

[3] The character did not exist in the book of which the show was an adaptation because in Richard J. Sawyer’s science fiction novel Flashforward, the event although initially ascribed to an accident at the Large Hardon Collider at CERN, turns out to be caused by a neutrino pulse from supernova 1987a.

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