Ricky Jay has passed away. He was 72, which is of course far too young. It is tempting to go long on both the man and his legacy, but it is unlikely that anything will ever top Mark Singer’s profile of the man from a 1993 issue of the New Yorker. It is worth clicking on and reading in its entirety.
Jay’s specialty was twofold: the history of magic and playing cards. On the first, he wrote books and books and books on the subject. On the second, he thrived with various shows, including his most famous work, Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants. It was a performance met with rapturous praise. That first link will take you to the show itself. But he thrived elsewhere, including on talk shows, flooring hosts with what he could make cards do.
Jay’s magic was not limited to cards though. He had other routines, including a performance of the Cups and Balls that ranks as a positively baffling thing. We know that magic is not real; we are being misled, intentionally. We know this objectively and rationally. We know this is not magic. We know this is not real. And yet, this:
Jay, of course, is likely familiar for another reason: was an actor who appeared occasionally in movies by Paul Thomas Anderson (he was in both Boogie Nights and Magnolia) and frequently in movies by David Mamet (he was in House of Games, Homicide, The Spanish Prisoner, and Heist among others). In Heist, he played the role of Pinky Pincus, a beloved uncle who doubles as the member of crew of conmen that includes Gene Hackman and Delroy Lindo. In the movie, the crew adds a fifth named Jimmy, a younger guy who is hotheaded. He suspects Hackman no longer has the chops to lead so he takes Pincus aside.
Jimmy asked, “Is he gonna be cool?”
Pincus responded, “My motherfucker is so cool, when he goes to bed, sheep count him.”
It takes something to deliver that line straight-faced and convincingly. It takes something to make that believable and real. Jay had it so much that the line flitters by, just another line. Jay’s performances, like his magic, were so easy to believe. And that, more than anything, is what he brought to the the table throughout his career: the ability to convince us that the lie was the truth, even when we absolutely knew better.