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Ricky Jay

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Ricky Jay
Jay at the premiere of Redbelt in April 2008
Richard Jay Potash

(1946-06-26)June 26, 1946
DiedNovember 24, 2018(2018-11-24) (aged 72)
  • Magician
  • actor
  • writer
Known forSleight of hand, card tricks, history of magic
Chrisann Verges
(m. 2002)

Richard Jay Potash (June 26, 1946 – November 24, 2018)[1] was an American stage magician, actor and writer. In a 1993 profile for The New Yorker, Mark Singer called Jay "perhaps the most gifted sleight of hand artist alive".[2] In addition to sleight of hand, he was known for his card tricks, card throwing, memory feats, and stage patter. He also wrote extensively on magic and its history. His acting credits included the films The Prestige, The Spanish Prisoner, Mystery Men, Heist, Boogie Nights, Tomorrow Never Dies, Heartbreakers, State and Main, House of Games and Magnolia, and the HBO series Deadwood. In 2015 he was the subject of an episode of PBS's American Masters, the only magician ever profiled in the series.[3]

Early life


Jay was born in the New York City borough of Brooklyn to Shirley (Katz) and Samuel Potash.[1] A member of a middle-class Jewish family, he grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey.[4][5] He rarely spoke publicly about his parents, but did share an anecdote: "My father oiled his hair with Brylcreem and brushed his teeth with Colgate," Jay recalled. "He 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."[2]

During an interview on the National Public Radio program Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Jay said that possibly "the only kind memory I ever had of my parents" was when they secretly hired one of his idols, magician Al Flosso, to perform at his bar mitzvah.[6] Jay's grandfather, Max Katz, was a certified public accountant and amateur magician who introduced Jay to magic.[7][8][9]




Appearing on The Secret Cabaret

Jay first performed in public at the age of seven, in 1953, when he appeared on the television program Time for Pets.[10] 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 Electric Circus in the 1960s, he performed on a bill between Ike and Tina Turner and Timothy Leary, who lectured about LSD.[2]

During the 1960s and 70s, Jay lived in Ithaca, New York, performing while also intermittently attending the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, but later moved to the Los Angeles area.[11][12][13]

He quickly developed a following among magic aficionados, and a reputation for sleight-of-hand feats that baffled even his colleagues. In his 1993 New Yorker profile of Jay, Mark Singer related the following story from playwright David Mamet and theater 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 Mosher's 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. "Three of clubs," 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, "Ricky, you know, I also concentrated on a card." After an interval of silence, Jay said, "That's interesting, Gregory, but I only do this for one person at a time." Mosher persisted: "Well, Ricky, I really was thinking of a card." Jay paused, frowned, stared at Mosher, and said, "This is a distinct change of procedure." A longer pause. "All right—what was the card?" "Two of spades." Jay nodded, and gestured toward the other pile, and Mosher turned over its top card. The deuce of spades. A small riot ensued.[2]

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 also cast Jay in a number of his films.

A collector and historian, Jay was a student and friend of Dai Vernon, whom he called "the greatest living contributor to the magical art." He collected rare books and manuscripts, art, and other artifacts connected to the history of magic, gambling, unusual entertainments, and frauds and confidence games. Jay opposed any public revelations of the techniques of magic.[2]

Jay was formerly listed in the Guinness World Records for throwing a playing card 190 ft at 90 miles per hour (140 km/h) (the current record is 216 feet (66 m) by Rick Smith Jr.). He could throw a playing card into a watermelon rind (which he referred to as the "thick, pachydermatous outer melon layer" and "the most prodigious of household fruits") from ten paces. In addition, he was 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 attacked plastic animals with thrown cards in "self defense."



Jay appeared in a number of David Mamet films including House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner and Redbelt; he also appeared in a few episodes of the Mamet-produced TV series The Unit as a C.I.A. recruiter.

Jay played Henry Gupta, a henchman to villain Elliot Carver, in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies; and appeared in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights and Magnolia, as well as Christopher Nolan's The Prestige.

He joined the cast of the HBO western drama Deadwood as a recurring 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"[14] and left the series at the end of the first season.



As an expert on magic, gambling, con games and unusual entertainment, Jay was a consultant on Hollywood projects for many years, beginning with his work on Francis Ford Coppola's production of Caleb Deschanel's The Escape Artist.[15] Other early work included teaching Robert Redford how to manipulate coins for The Natural and working with Douglas Trumbull on his 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 were able to provide surprising practical solutions to real production challenges. Among many accomplishments, they designed the wheelchair that "magically" hid Gary Sinise's legs in Forrest Gump; the glass that "drinks itself" used by the gorilla in Congo; and an illusion "in which a man climbs to the top of a ladder of light and vanishes in midair" for the Broadway production of Angels in America: Perestroika.[16]

Other projects they worked on included The Prestige,[17] The Illusionist, Sneakers, Leap of Faith, Wolf, The Parent Trap, I Love Trouble, The Great Buck Howard, Heartbreakers, and Ocean's Thirteen.

Additionally, he 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, California.[18]

Lectures and exhibitions


Jay authored numerous articles and delivered many lectures and 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 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."[19]

Exhibitions of material from his collections have been mounted at the Hammer Museum,[20] the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts,[21] University of California, Davis,[22] the Christine Burgin Gallery,[23] the Museum of Jurassic Technology,[24] and UCLA's Clark Library.[25] He loaned material to the Getty Center for their exhibit "Devices of Wonder"[26] the Skirball Museum, the Huntington Library, the Whitney Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an exhibit entitled "Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger's Drawings From the Collection of Ricky Jay" in 2016.[27]

Documentary film


Jay is the subject of the feature documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.



Jay died on November 24, 2018, at age 72. His attorney Stan Coleman confirmed his death but further details were not immediately released.[28] Later press coverage reported that Jay died of natural causes.[29]








  • A Midsummer Night's 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 Rogue's Gallery (2009)

He also performed on the 2005 BBC Radio adaptation of David Mamet's Faustus.[31]



Jay was the author of eleven books:[1]

  • Cards as Weapons. Image Graphiques (1977). ISBN 0882010174.
  • Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women. Villard (1986). ISBN 0394537505.
  • Many Mysteries Unraveled: Conjuring Literature in America 1786–1874. Antiquarian Society (1990). ASIN B00FFJ0402.
  • The Magic Magic Book. Whitney Museum Library Associates (1994). ASIN B004ONUJP0.
  • Jay's Journal of Anomalies. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2001). ISBN 0374178674.
  • Dice: Deception, Fate, and Rotten Luck. Quantuck Lane Press (2002). ISBN 0971454817.
  • Extraordinary Exhibitions: Broadsides from the Collection of Ricky Jay. Quantuck Lane Press (2005). ISBN 1593720122.
  • Ricky Jay Plays Poker (Audio CD). Sony Legacy (2007). ASIN B000HT2MB4.
  • Magic: 1400s–1950s (with Mike Caveney, Jim Steinmeyer) Taschen (2009). ISBN 383652807X.
  • Celebrations of Curious Characters. McSweeney (2010). ISBN 1936365030.
  • Matthias Buchinger: "The Greatest German Living". Siglio (2016).

Charles McGrath called Jay "perhaps the last of the great 19th-century authors." Jay's last book, Matthias Buchinger: "The Greatest German Living", was well-received, called "awe-inspiring" by the Los Angeles Times and "beguiling" by the New York Review of Books.[1]



Ricky Jay 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 "The Fiddler" with Richard Greene on Hal Willner's sea shanty-compilation Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys (2006), as well as "The Chantey of Noah and his Ark (Old School Song)" on its follow-up Son of Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys (2013).

He appeared in the music video for Bob Dylan's song "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,"[32] 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.[33]

He also appeared in the video for the Jerry Garcia and David Grisman single "The Thrill Is Gone," which is available on the DVD of the Grateful Dawg documentary.


  1. ^ a b c d Gates, Anita (November 25, 2018). "Ricky Jay, Gifted Magician, Actor and Author, Is Dead at 70". The New York Times. Archived from the original on November 26, 2018. Retrieved November 25, 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d e Singer, Mark (April 5, 1993). "Secrets of the Magus". New Yorker. Vol. 69, no. 7. p. 54. Archived from the original on July 11, 2022. Retrieved June 8, 2015.
  3. ^ "Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice | About the Film | American Masters | PBS". American Masters. December 3, 2014. Archived from the original on August 12, 2021. Retrieved September 18, 2018.
  4. ^ "Magician With A Lot Up His Sleeve". March 7, 1998. Archived from the original on October 22, 2012. Retrieved October 16, 2016. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  5. ^ "The Greatest Living Magician". Archived from the original on June 11, 2014. Retrieved October 16, 2016.
  6. ^ "Remembering Master Magician And Sleight-Of-Hand Artist Ricky Jay". npr.org. Archived from the original on December 1, 2018. Retrieved November 30, 2018.
  7. ^ "The World Wide Website of Ricky Jay". Archived from the original on September 20, 2013. Retrieved October 16, 2016.
  8. ^ "Extraordinary Exhibitions: Broadsides from the Collection of Ricky Jay" (PDF). RickyJay.com. 2011. Archived (PDF) from the original on July 6, 2012. Retrieved August 26, 2019.
  9. ^ Bresnick, Adam (February 22, 1999). "Forbes.com – Magazine Article". Forbes. Archived from the original on January 26, 2001.
  10. ^ "Secrets of the Magus". Archived from the original on November 10, 2019. Retrieved November 25, 2018.
  11. ^ Singer, Mark (April 5, 1993). "Secrets of the Magus". New Yorker. Archived from the original on November 10, 2019. Retrieved November 26, 2018.
  12. ^ Haine, Peggy. "He's musician and builder, but don't call him sculptor". Ithaca Journal. Archived from the original on September 20, 2020. Retrieved November 26, 2018.
  13. ^ Githler, Charlie (December 14, 2016). "Sui Generis". Ithaca Times. Archived from the original on August 6, 2020. Retrieved November 26, 2018.
  14. ^ Steve Shill (director), Ricky Jay (writer) (June 6, 2004). "Jewel's Boot Is Made for Walking". Deadwood. Season 1. Episode 11. HBO.
  15. ^ Werner, Laurie (June 2, 1994). "It's Just Magic. Really". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on March 6, 2016. Retrieved September 27, 2012.
  16. ^ Werner, Laurie (June 2, 1994). "It's Just Magic. Really". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on March 6, 2016. Retrieved September 27, 2012.
  17. ^ Jay, Ricky; Weber, Michael (October 30, 2006). "Conjuring up the magical in movies". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on August 24, 2015. Retrieved September 27, 2012.
  18. ^ Basbanes, Nicholas (1995). A Gentle Madness. Henry Holt and Company. pp. 419. ISBN 978-0-8050-3653-4.
  19. ^ Harvard University Gazette
  20. ^ "Hokum That Stands the Test of Time," Review by Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times, November 15, 2007
  21. ^ "Oddballs, magicians, freaks haunt Ricky Jay's handbill history," by Peter Hartlaub, San Francisco Chronicle, January 24, 2005.
  22. ^ "UC Davis News & Information :: In the News". Archived from the original on November 16, 2012. Retrieved September 21, 2012.
  23. ^ "Ricky Jay - Publications & Editions - Christine Burgin". Archived from the original on September 15, 2016. Retrieved October 16, 2016.
  24. ^ "Rotten Luck". Archived from the original on October 17, 2016. Retrieved October 16, 2016.
  25. ^ "UCLA Library Department of Special Collections: Exhibits". Archived from the original on February 13, 2012. Retrieved September 21, 2012.
  26. ^ "Quarterly News Bulletin, Winter 2001 (Getty Press Release)". Archived from the original on September 23, 2016. Retrieved October 16, 2016.,
  27. ^ "Ricky Jay and the Met Conjure Big Magic in Miniature". The New York Times. January 17, 2016. Archived from the original on December 17, 2016. Retrieved October 16, 2016.
  28. ^ Saperstein, Pat (November 25, 2018). "Ricky Jay, Master Magician and Actor in 'Deadwood,' 'Boogie Nights,' Dies at 72". Variety. Archived from the original on November 25, 2018. Retrieved November 25, 2018.
  29. ^ "Ricky Jay, American magician and actor, dies". BBC News. November 25, 2018. Archived from the original on October 20, 2021. Retrieved October 20, 2021.
  30. ^ "Pigeon Fever: Ponzi Schemes Still Thriving". CBS News. February 11, 2010. Archived from the original on May 30, 2013. Retrieved September 21, 2012.
  31. ^ "BBC - Radio 3 - Drama on 3 - Faustus". Archived from the original on November 28, 2018. Retrieved October 16, 2016.
  32. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on September 26, 2011. Retrieved September 21, 2012.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  33. ^ Interview in The Believer Magazine, May 2012.