Movies

Film focuses on sleight of hand legend Ricky Jay

Ricky Jay in “Deceptive Practice.”
Jesse Dylan/Kino Lorber
Ricky Jay in “Deceptive Practice.”

The first sights and sounds in “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay” are of a deck of cards being shuffled and fanned, and of a man in the shadows holding that deck, effortlessly finding and flicking out all four aces with one thumb.

That would be Ricky Jay, who has been doing magic for 60 of his 64 years, first learning the trade from his amateur magician grandfather, Max Katz. Jay is regularly referred to in today’s magic circles as the best sleight of hand artist around. But he’d be the first to tell you that this film, which took 14 years to make and opens at the Kendall Square Cinema on Friday, isn’t really about him. The documentary’s co-directors, Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein, would be the second and third people to say the same thing. As the title suggests, it’s much more about the people who taught him the secrets of magic. If names such as Dai Vernon, Charlie Miller, Slydini, Cardini, and Al Flosso aren’t familiar, they will be by film’s end.

Bernstein got the idea to make the documentary after seeing Jay’s one-man show, “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants” in 1994, then reading Mark Singer’s 1993 New Yorker profile on him. She invited her friend, Northampton native Edelstein, to join the project, as he was fascinated with the history of magic and by Jay as a character.

Advertisement

Though Jay has had plenty of acting experience, and shows off some fine chops in “Boogie Nights” and in his friend David Mamet's “House of Games” and “The Spanish Prisoner,” having just gone through a contentious experience with a BBC crew doing a documentary on him, he wasn’t initially interested in taking part.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, Jay said, “There were three things that made me eventually decide to do it with them. One is that, as persistent as they were, they were in no way annoying in their persistence. They were polite and interesting. The second was the involvement of Mark Singer, who introduced them to me, and them using his article as a sort of springboard for the film. And the third, and by far the most important, was the idea of telling the story of my mentors, which is what I thought really needed to be told.”

Bernstein and Edelstein also spoke by phone from LA.

“There was a long, unspoken testing period of our intentions and our dedication,” said Edelstein of finally gaining Jay’s trust.

“If we asked him things that he didn’t want to answer, he didn’t answer them,” said Bernstein. “But he didn’t set any ground rules. We knew from Mark Singer that Ricky’s early family life was pretty much off limits. He did talk about it a bit, and I think that was enough. But we also realized that’s not what our story was going to be, so we worked around it.”

Advertisement

The story was going to be about two men who actually taught him the ropes: Dai Vernon, who was a pal of Jay’s grandfather, and Charlie Miller, along with the other previously mentioned masters of the craft.

“That was sort of a common ground,” said Edelstein. “We were interested in delving into this, and he loved talking about it and felt comfortable talking about it. It was a way for us to get him invested in the project, to focus on these characters who were known by magicians, yet to the general world, they’re really unknowns. It was sort of an act of homage and recovery to get these names and talents out to the general public.”

Jay agreed. The filmmakers’ approach appealed to him, and he believed it would be of equal interest to a viewing audience.

“The idea, sadly, is that this kind of mentoring is vanishing as a method of learning,” he said. “There are certainly terrific magicians around now, and there are younger magicians who enjoy hanging out with them. But I don’t know that anyone will ever have the kind of immersion that I had with Vernon or Charlie, where this just went on constantly, day after day, with no exchange of money. It really was wonderful.”

Besides abundant footage of Jay’s heroes in action — a particularly funny bit involves Al Flosso cracking up the usually stone-faced Ed Sullivan — and Jay providing plenty of anecdotes about them, there’s also a generous amount of Jay, doing his one-man show, calmly shuffling cards in front of mirrors, performing at the age of 7 (as Ricky Potash, his real name), and at 14 (as Tricky Ricky).

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff
Boston photographer Rosamond Purcell, who collaborated with Jay on the 2003 book “Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck.”
Advertisement

“The childhood material came from Ricky,” said Bernstein. “That was something that he gave us, kind of late in the process. He wasn’t going to give that to us till he knew us better.”

‘Magicians are as different as dancers and singers. . . . Everybody’s not the same.’

“Actually, that was my wife’s idea,” said Jay, laughing. “I had gotten those old films from my sister, and when I saw them, I thought they were absurd. But I remember my wife looking at them and saying, ‘This has got to be in the film.’ ”

Jay’s appreciation for the absurd is actually well documented. He collaborated with Boston photographer Rosamond Purcell on the 2003 book “Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck,” which featured her photos of his collection of decaying dice. (That’s right, decaying dice — made of celluloid, which is known for decomposing but not for being a collector’s item.) Purcell has stayed friendly with Jay and is glimpsed briefly in his new film.

“I think he’s a fantastic magician,” she said recently during an interview at her Somerville studio. “The thing about Ricky is that you can be sitting with him, and he’ll say what he’s going to do, and then he does it, and you follow it, but you cannot get it. You just cannot understand how he does it.”

Though Jay doesn’t talk a lot about himself in “Deceptive Practice,” and is known to enjoy his privacy, he seemed relaxed enough during our conversation for a few personal questions.

Was he initially attracted to magic because he just wanted to be able to do these tricks or because he wanted to make people’s jaws drop?

“It wasn’t that conscious a decision,” he said. “I was simply around it, and around it on an extraordinarily high level, with my grandfather and his friends. It was just something I did. I certainly liked it when people were fooled and surprised, but that’s neither why I entered it or why I had reluctance to do it for a career. That’s another odd thing: Even though I always did it, I never really thought I would be doing it for my life’s work.”

Was there a specific point when he decided to do magic as a career?

“No, I think suddenly I found that I was just doing it, and happy doing it.”

Has he had any other interests, or was it just magic 24/7?

“As immersed as I was in magic, I had real interests in life. I was very interested in sports and music and literature. I don’t know what makes all of those things happen, but one of the things that I hope happens with this film is that people understand that magicians are as different as dancers and singers. That everybody’s not the same. It’s clearly those other life experiences that make people different as performers of magic.”

He’s always loved fooling people with his tricks, but does he enjoy it when other magicians manage to fool him?

“Absolutely. It doesn’t happen so much, but when it does, it’s terrific. It’s something that I think is sadly underrated in terms of life’s emotions. It’s great fun to be fooled.”

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.