Ricky Jay, a revered sleight-of-hand magician who shined light on centuries of illusionists and consulted with Hollywood to make the impossible seem real, died Saturday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 72.
His longtime manager, Winston Simone, confirmed his death.
Mr. Jay was known for his command of cards, whether conjuring them with precision or flinging them into the rind of a watermelon. He frequented talk shows and performed in several one-man shows directed by playwright David Mamet, including “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants.”
The consulting company Mr. Jay founded with Michael Weber in the 1990s, Deceptive Practices, worked with directors in Hollywood and on Broadway to create illusions. He also appeared in movies like “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “Tomorrow Never Dies” and “The Prestige,” as well as the television series “Deadwood.”
A student of his craft, Mr. Jay collected artifacts from magic’s history and often wrote about magicians who might otherwise have been forgotten. There was a limit to what he would share, however. Mr. Jay was adamant about preserving the mystery behind his tricks.
“Most people realize that magical powers are not being invoked and that it’s someone who’s created a way to mystify and entertain you,” Mr. Jay told The New York Times in 2002. “The key to that is surprise. If you’re giving away the method, you’re denying someone the surprise.”
Richard Jay Potash was born in Brooklyn, New York, before his family moved to the New Jersey suburbs, according to a 1993 profile in The New Yorker. But Mr. Jay did not like to reveal his age or discuss his childhood, telling the magazine, “I grew up like Athena — covered with playing cards instead of armor — and, at the age of 7, materialized on a TV show, doing magic.”
And Mr. Jay kept doing it, developing into a magician many considered the greatest sleight-of-hand artist in the world. He “defined the terms of his art” for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, according to a biography on his website.
Audiences were often flummoxed by Mr. Jay’s card tricks. When pressured to impress at a dinner party, he told a guest to pick a card. After the guest named the three of hearts, Mr. Jay shuffled, gripped the deck and flung it across the table, causing the cards to strike an open wine bottle, according to The New Yorker. To the guest’s dismay, the three of hearts appeared inside the bottle’s neck.
Mr. Jay also frequently wrote and spoke on odd and varied subjects that were adjacent to magic, such as con games and sense perception. He was once the curator of the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts and had been elected to membership in the American Antiquarian Society, his online biography said.
Among the overlooked showmen he brought back to life with his research and writing: Matthias Buchinger, an 18th-century German with no hands or feet, and Max Malini, who turned coins into ice in the early 20th century.
“I sort of think of Ricky as the intellectual elite of magicians,” actor Steve Martin told The New Yorker. “Ricky’s a master of his craft.”
Asked by The Times about duplicity for a 2013 article, Mr. Jay, who is survived by his wife, Chrisann Verges, argued: “You wouldn’t want to live in a world where you couldn’t be conned. Because it would mean you’re living in a world where you never trusted anyone or anything.”