By Chris Nashawaty
November 26, 2018 at 05:19 PM EST
Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images

This profile of the late magician Ricky Jay originally ran in the June 21, 2002 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Jay died on Nov. 24, 2018, at age 72.

I’ve spent exactly five minutes with Ricky Jay and so far he’s introduced me to the world’s greatest living tightrope walker, a troupe of Swiss jugglers, and Moby.

We’re all packed into Jay‘s dressing room at the Second Stage Theatre, where he’s unwinding after another sold-out performance of his one-man Off Broadway show Ricky Jay: On the Stem. And even though tonight’s curtain has been down for nearly half an hour, Jay‘s still sweating like Shaquille O’Neal in triple overtime.

When his bizarre posse is finally ushered out of the room, Jay flops onto a threadbare sofa. Just then, three members of his inner circle of fellow magicians walk in to rehash the show. It went well; there isn’t much to discuss. So the four of them start swapping stories. Weird stories.

Jay sits silently, nodding his approval after each one. Then, as the last of their tales is unspooled, he grins like a poker player holding an unbeatable hand. He stands up, moves to the center of the room, and launches into a gem.

“So I’m in Vegas, standing in Siegfried and Roy’s living room…”

Since the story involves the humiliation of one of their mutual friends, the details are off-the-record. But let’s just say it involves one of Siegfried and Roy’s tigers, projectile urinating, and a man in an expensive white suit.

And it kills.

Still, it’s not the surreal details of the tale that stand out. Nor is it the deadpan delivery. What’s most amazing is that RickyJay is the kind of fella who hangs out with jugglers, tightrope walkers, and techno hipsters — and has a Siegfried and Roy story to tell.

Who is this guy?

The short answer is that Ricky Jay is a magician. But stopping there is like calling da Vinci a doodler. Jay is more like the eccentric bastard child of Harry Houdini, Spalding Gray, and Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy — all stuffed into the portly frame of an insurance salesman. He’s a character actor who regularly pops up in the films of David Mamet (House of Games, Heist) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia). He’s a author and scholar of the arcane whose L.A. home is crammed with yellowing texts about conjuring and rare circus memorabilia. He’s a raconteur whose oddball stories are a connection to a colorful past populated with snake-oil salesmen, con artists, and quacks. And he’s a sharpshooter with a deck of cards who can pierce the skin of a watermelon with the ace of clubs from 10 paces.

It’s just after 11 P.M., and Ricky Jay is in the mood for dumplings. In a deserted and dimly lit Chinese restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, we make our way to the back booth. I slide in, facing the room. Jay is unhappy.

“Do you mind if we switch sides?” he asks, still standing. “A superstition. I prefer to not have my back to the room. Too many years of playing cards. It’s one of the many reasons people think I’m strange.”

We switch sides. Jay pours some tea and spots the “juicy little sticky buns” he’s been hunting for on the menu. I ask him about his childhood in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.

“Let’s talk about something else.”

So we do. For a while. But again, about that childhood.

He sighs.

“Okay, let’s get this straight. You ask anything you want to ask, but if I don’t feel like answering, I’ll let you know. I hope that’s not going to be a problem.”

It’s easy to fathom why Jay is so cagey. In his line of work, there’s an innate fear of demystifying persona and the tricks of the profession. In fact, Jay‘s mystique is something he’s grappling with as he draws greater and greater attention.

Ricky Jay won’t discuss his age, but it’s reported to be around 54. And that looks about right. His eyelids are heavy and permanently hung at half-mast. He’s a bear of a man with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, and a taste for wide-wale cords and khaki shirts. The only part of him that begs attention at all is his hands: the quicksilver tools of his trade. They’re meaty, but smaller in scale than the rest of him. Perfect for, say, boosting your wallet.

Sated on dumplings, Jay loosens up a bit. His grandfather, a CPA named Max Katz, got him interested in magic, he says. “He was an amateur magician. And his friends were some of the great entertainers in the world: jugglers, ventriloquists…. He was sort of an amateur mathematician, and he taught me cube roots when I was very young. He did calligraphy, he played chess, he was a checker champion, he played three-cushion billiards — all by taking lessons.”

Jay was the student’s student. He says he spent most of his early childhood with a deck of cards in his tiny hands, cutting and shuffling for 8 to 10 hours a day. By the time he was 7, Jay says he was performing on a television show called Star Time Kids. By 13, he was working the Catskills.

When asked if his eclectic interests made him feel different from other kids, he laughs. “You’d think so! But I was also into sports. The only thing that made me seemingly sane was that I played ball. But yeah, I suppose that makes you different as a kid. Sitting in your room with a deck of cards in your hand all day long.”

William H. Macy has known Jay since the mid-’80s, and they’ve appeared in seven movies together. They were first introduced when Jay performed at a birthday party at David Mamet’s place. “It was one of the most surreal parties I’ve ever been to,” Macy recalls, “because there were about 45 of us crammed into a small New York apartment and Mamet’s kids were asleep in the next room. And Ricky was doing these astounding sleight-of-hand illusions that made me want to scream, but I couldn’t because I’d wake up the babies.”

Over the years, Macy has seen Jay work unsuspecting marks on movie sets, at parties, and just about anywhere else a sucker can be found. But there’s one trick that still toys with his head: “I was in New York doing a Mamet play, Oleanna, and Ricky came by the theater. I introduced him to one of the understudies and said, ‘Ricky, do something.’ He didn’t want to. But then he launched into some doggerel poem about how his papa was some degenerate gambler and the only thing he remembered about him was he had a tattoo of two lucky dice on his forearm. And Ricky lifts his shirt, and of course, there’s no tattoo on it. Then he goes through more of the poem and lifts his shirt again and there is now a tattoo of two dice on his forearm. I was like, ‘What the f—?!‘”

After being trotted out on TV and in the Catskills, Jay went to Cornell. He says he spent nearly a decade on the Ithaca campus without graduating. Instead, he decided to go to L.A. and apprentice under the famous sleight-of-hand artists Charles Miller and Dai Vernon –the latter, an old friend of his grandfather’s in Brooklyn. Jay recalls spending days asking for advice and nights just proud to be at their table at Canter’s Deli. “They were both so remarkably generous,” he says. “I mean, there was never a test, but you had to prove yourself to them…. Clearly, if you didn’t fit, they’d have nothing to do with you.”

To test his magic chops, Jay took to the road. He toured as the opening act with everyone from Cheech & Chong to Emmylou Harris. Pictures of Jay from this period–with a long ponytail–make him look like a cross between a Hell’s Angel and a minstrel at a Renaissance Fair. Among the places where he honed his craft, Jay says, were “street fairs, carnies, black nightclubs in Kansas City, Indian reservation parking lots, you name it.” His worst gig? “Opening for the B-52’s was certainly up there.”

Watching Jay flimflam theater audiences these days, it’s clear that he has the talent to put his skills to darker use. So I ask him if he’s ever thought about being a con man off stage? He smiles and looks down at his dumplings.

“In a word, yes.”

Well, have you ever actually done it?

“I’ve flirted…”

Let’s talk about it.

“Nah, let’s not.”

For the most part, Ricky Jay doesn’t mix with other magicians. David Roth, one of his sleight-of-hand pals, says that’s because Jay hates mediocrity: “There’s just an awful lot of bad magic out there and he’s just sort of stayed away.”

Needless to say, when I ask Jay about David Blaine — the young, headline-grabbing illusionist whose endurance stunts, like standing in a block of ice, get their own ABC specials — there’s a long pause. He sets down a half-eaten piece of barbecued duck and grasps for something nice to say. He doesn’t seem able to. “It’s uncomfortable for me to talk about other people in that way. I don’t know an easy way to do it. I guess the easiest way for me to respond is to just pretend you never asked.”

Listening to Jay, you can’t help but get the feeling that he finds it slightly demeaning to be compared to his contemporaries. Or that some part of him feels like a man out of time, born in the wrong century. Talking about the 19th-century Austrian conjurer Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser, Jay seems to envy the impact his deceptions had on the audience. Sure, Jay‘s had people grab rosary beads after one of his illusions. But it’s nothing like the awe Hofzinser inspired. “He clearly had to be so far ahead of his time in terms of his technique with sleight of hand that it must have been staggering. Those people must have thought they were witnessing miracles.”

On the Stem, Jay‘s Mamet-directed return to the New York stage after the phenomenal, sold-out, 10-week-long run of its 1998 predecessor Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants (itself a return engagement after an even longer SRO run in 1994), is a tribute to those bygone performers. The legitimate miracle workers, as well as the burlesque-house hucksters who populated Broadway at the turn of the century — a time when Broadway was referred to as “The Stem That Winds the Watch.” A place where pickpockets and mentalists plied their trades. Where Hubert’s Museum housed its famous flea circus. And where some sting artist might actually sell you the Brooklyn Bridge if you weren’t careful.

It’s a place that couldn’t be more different from the Broadway the two of us step onto after closing down the Chinese restaurant. In fact, right now, sometime after midnight, it’s dead. And the only connection to its gloriously shady past is the man walking with a limp on my right, Ricky Jay. It’s funny, I don’t remember the limp before dinner. And I start to wonder, Is this just part of some scam? But before I can think to ask, he’s disappeared into the night. Somewhere down the Stem.