You may not know his name, but you almost certainly know his face or voice. As the cameraman in Boogie Nights, the narrator of Magnolia, a card shark in Deadwood, or a henchman in Tomorrow Never Dies, Ricky Jay had a commanding presence in whatever role he played. Although best known to mainstream audiences as an actor, the Brooklyn-born Jay achieved greatest success as a stage magician whose acclaimed one-man shows were regularly directed by theater legend David Mamet (who, in a 1993 New Yorker profiler said of Jay “I’ve never seen anybody better at what he does”).
Due to his encyclopedic knowledge of magic and general esoterica, Jay was considered both a scholar and a conjurer — a dynamic one-two punch that made him a beloved talk show guest. Indeed, his abilities were so legendary that he earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for throwing a playing card 190 ft at 90 miles per hour. (One of his books was titled Cards As Weapons, fittingly). Here’s a compilation of his various appearances on David Letterman‘s talk shows so you can see just some of his jaw-dropping sleight-of-hand skills:
Due to his appropriately enigmatic nature, Jay himself became a public figure of fascination, so much so that he became the focus of the 2012 documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.
Ricky Jay died yesterday at the age of 70. Like the tricks he performed, his life was full of wonder. History will no doubt speak of him as they do of such masters as Houdini, and that is no mere hyperbole but truth. With him gone, the world has truly lost a bit of its magic.
Ricky Jay: 1948 – 2018