Ricky Jay, who died last November, was one of my favorite people in the world, not so much because I was into his magic or his acting or his books — though there were things about all three of those things that I loved — but because he found such a great niche for himself. He was, of course, one of the best sleight-of-hand artists in the world, maybe among the best ever. But he was also a serious scholar outside of academe who wrote elegant, impressively-researched books and gave lectures. Oh yeah, and he also racked up nearly 40 acting credits, which is how most people know him. I admire this sort of range tremendously. Dude just seemed to have it figured out.
After his death, Mark Singer’s 1993 New Yorker profile of Jay re-circulated online. It’s great, and you should read it, but I also liked this bit from his friend David Mamet’s reminiscence:
He spent five or six hours a day practicing. He did it for 60 years. And, like all great preceptors, he was, primarily, a student. His study was the metaphysical idea of Magic, which found expression not only in performance, but in practice, commentary, design and contemplation. They were all, and equally to him, but expressions of an ideal.
The image of Jay this conjures, of him alone in a book-lined study, practicing his craft for hours, resonates with me as well. At heart I feel like Jay was an academic who happened to be a magician and an actor, suggesting to me that the lines between those things, between all things maybe, aren’t as clear cut as most people pretend they are.
Here, via Terry Teachout, is Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants from 1996.