At 86, the Amazing Randi still keeps you guessing

The Tampa Bay Times/September 1, 2014

By Glenn Garvin

For a guy who has spent most of the past 40 years busting treacherous telepaths, spurious spoon-benders and fake faith-healers, James Randi can do some pretty impressive psychic tricks himself. When I visited his home in Plantation last week, he read my mind.

"Pick any two books off the shelves," he said, waving at his library of 4,000 volumes on UFOs, witchcraft, the Kennedy assassination and pretty much any subject that lends itself to exploitation by grifters and wackos.

I arbitrarily chose a couple of books on flying saucers; Randi took one and I held onto the other. "I'm going to riffle through the pages of my book, and you tell me where to stop," he told me. He slipped perhaps a fifth of the way through before I stopped him — on page 47, as he showed me.

"Now you look at page 47 of your book," Randi said. "Don't let me see it. But go to the first line, and choose one word — a real word, not something like a, an or the." After a quick glance, I decided the word specialists was real enough, and I nodded that I was ready.

Randi picked up a pen and a piece of paper and began scrawling what looked like a mixture of random lines and letters from some obscure foreign alphabet. He bit his lip, then stopped. "I don't know, maybe I'm not getting it," he admitted. "What was the word?"

"Specialists," I told him sympathetically, knowing it must be embarrassing to botch a trick in front of a reporter who would tell the world. "Specialists," he repeated. "With an S? Would you say this is close?" He flipped his paper end over end, and suddenly I could see that in the middle of the gibberish characters he'd written, upside down, specialties.

"Now suppose I just walked up to you in a bar and did that, or in a dimly lit room in the back of a fortune-teller's parlor," Randi said. "Would you think it was ESP?"

"Forget the bar, right here and now I don't understand what else it could be," I replied. Seriously: I picked the book myself, at random, from 4,000 possibilities, and Randi never saw the page I looked at. Even if he had memorized the first line on page 47 of every book in the library — a ridiculously unlikely proposition — there were seven or eight words on it. How could he have guessed which one I would choose?

Now I was the one who was embarrassed, because try as I might, I couldn't figure out how the trick worked. Randi merely smiled, revealing nothing. "Are you going to tell me the secret?" I asked. "Oh, sure," he said amiably. "All I did was mrwwk blchh gurffbb — well, look at that, some mysterious power grabbed my tongue to prevent me!"

I asked several more times — joshingly, belligerently, pleadingly — but all Randi would tell me was that he deliberately messed up the end of the word, from special ists to special ties. "I always do it that way," he said. "It makes you wonder more — does he really have a power or was it just a coincidence? It's a better trick that way."

The debunker

Randi certainly has a power: to entertain; to mystify; to enlighten; to debunk; to infuriate — so much so that at age 86, he's the subject of a lively new documentary, An Honest Liar, that goes into theatrical release in November.

He has been a professional magician — The Amazing Randi — for more than seven decades, and the skeptical scourge of practitioners of the paranormal for more than four.

He escaped from a straitjacket dangling over Niagara Falls and survived. He chopped off goth-rocker Alice Cooper's head, and Cooper survived. He sent millionaire faith-healers into bankruptcy, ruined Israeli mentalist Uri Geller's act in front of a national television audience on The Tonight Show, and wrecked a government research project on psychic powers.

He has fans — he has won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, taught at UCLA and NYU and been decorated by scientific societies in Switzerland, Belgium and the United States. (One even named an asteroid after him.) Betty Ford once invited him to do a White House magic show for children and overruled Secret Service agents who didn't want her take part in a trick. "Give me a break, Baird!" she snapped at one overzealous agent, then accepted Randi's trick scarlet handkerchief: "I'd be proud to bear your colors."

And he has enemies, too. One psychic, exposed as a phony as a room full of scientific researchers looked on, shrieked: "Randi is the devil!" The Russians are so suspicious of him that they forbade U.S. astronaut Ed Lu to bring a deck of Randi's cards on board the space shuttle. (Lu smuggled them aboard anyway and cooperated with Randi in The First Card Trick in Outer Space, though even Randi's formidable skills were not enough to tame the hazards of shuffling a deck in zero gravity.) And Geller has sued him so many times that Randi has lost track, though he has yet to pay a penny in damages.

"It's cost me a small fortune in legal fees, though," Randi admitted ruefully. But long before his celebrated feud with Geller began four decades ago, Randi learned that there's a price to be paid for skepticism about the paranormal.

"When I was still just a kid, a teenager, doing magic shows table-to-table in lounges in Toronto, I was a pretty good mentalist," said Randi, employing the word magicians use for the genre of tricks that appear to be performed entirely with the power of the mind rather than sleight of hand. "Veteran magicians would say, 'Wow, that's impressive.' If you look back in the professional magic magazines of the 1930s and 1940s, you'll find a lot of references to Randall Zwinge," the birth name under which he originally performed.

"But I would always end my performance by saying, 'You think this is ESP, it's supernatural, but that's not true. It's all a trick.' And people would get angry. 'That's not true! When you came up with my phone number, that couldn't have been a trick, that was real!' Let me tell you, I learned real fast I wasn't getting many tips that way."

Randi was disturbed by the way so much of his audience clung to the supernatural illusions he created. And his dismay compounded when he toured Europe after World War II, doing shows for Allied troops. In Germany, he visited the so-called "spiritualist camps" where self-proclaimed mediums attracted hordes of war survivors trying to contact lost loved ones.

"After wars, these things spring up like mad," Randi said. "Because everybody has lost somebody, and they're desperate to talk to those dead family members."

Hesitantly, I wondered aloud whether what the mediums were doing was really so bad, if it wasn't simply bargain-basement psychological counseling. Letting heartbroken children think that the spirits of their dead parents live on and are happy, in return for a few dollars? Helping them let go and move on, is that so wrong?

"It's wrong because it's never just a few dollars, they'll continue to spend money," insisted Randi. "They'll want to know more, talk more. But the message will never get beyond 'I'm here and I'm fine.' If you ask mom's spirit a question like, 'Where did you leave the will?' you'll never get an answer like 'It's behind the kitchen cabinet.' Instead, it'll be 'Oh, golly, honey, I have to go now.' Because the medium can't answer it . . .

"It's not wrong. It's evil. I don't recognize the concept of sin, but I know evil when I see it."

The magic life

The Canadian-born Randi (though he's since become a U.S. citizen) started out pulling tricks rather than debunking them. He left his Toronto home as a teenager for the itinerant — and, at least in his case, hugely successful — life of a performing magician.

"He's a really good magician," said his friend and one-time protege Penn Jillette, half of the Penn & Teller comic magician act. "As a performer, he's wonderful, a great showman, heavily influenced by Houdini, with lots of escape tricks and things like that.

"And he's also a great thinker... Not too long ago, he visited Las Vegas, and I mentioned that Teller and I were doing a show at a magicians' meeting, and we wanted to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Which is a trick that everybody has heard of, but nobody has actually seen. Randi sat right down with us and started kicking around ideas. And early the next morning he was there at rehearsal, working it out with us."

(The trick, by the way, worked, though Penn won't explain how it worked except to reveal the key problem: "Where do you hide the [bleeping] rabbit?")

But Randi long ago left magic mostly behind, except for the occasional messing with a reporter's mind. He had dabbled with debunking psychics and other paranormal phenomena in front of a big audience when he hosted a New York radio show in the late 1960s.

But he got into the national limelight almost by accident, when a friend at Time magazine invited him to a meeting where Geller — who had just brought his psychic-spoon-bending performance to America and had been proclaimed the genuine article by scientists at the Stanford Research Institute — would be showing the staff his stuff.

Randi saw Geller slipping an already-bent spoon into the performance. "It's easy to hold a bent spoon in a way that your hand shields the bend," Randi explained. "Then you squint real hard, so you look like you're beaming your mental powers at it, and you pull your hand away — 'Look, the spoon has bent!!' "

After Geller left, Randi demonstrated to the Time staff how everything Geller did could be duplicated with typical magician's sleight of hand. The result: Time dismissed Geller as "a questionable nightclub magician" in one of the very few negative stories of his entire career.

It also set the stage for their most memorable confrontation, a few months later. Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, an amateur magician himself, called Randi for advice about an upcoming Geller appearance on the show.

Geller had been wowing audiences with the same experiment that had won over the Stanford scientists, a variation of the shell game that street hustlers use to con rubes out of their money. Geller would be presented with a tray bearing 10 small aluminum film canisters. Nine were empty; the 10th contained a steel ball. Geller's challenge was to pick the one containing the ball, which he was able to do with near 100 percent accuracy.

"Glue the containers to the tray so they can't move," Randi advised Carson. "And his powers will mysteriously fail." Sure enough, Geller couldn't pick a container, even when Carson paused the show's taping for 20 minutes. "I don't feel strong tonight," he complained before finally giving up.

"I had already seen film of Geller doing this trick," Randi recalled. "Every time he was offered the tray, he tilted it slightly, this way and that way. I was sure he was watching for tiny movements of the canisters that would tell him which one had the ball inside."

Their wrangling, legal and otherwise, continues to this day. It is anything but friendly. A television crew once accidentally caught footage of a chance encounter of the two men in which Randi refused to shake Geller's hand. ("Do you really suppose Churchill and Hitler would shake hands?" Randi once retorted when asked about the incident.)

Randi, however, thinks their quarrel may be nearly over. Noting that Geller in recent interviews has begun referring to himself as a "mystifier" rather than a psychic, Randi believes Geller may be on the verge of confessing that his paranormal powers were just a long, profitable hoax.

"He wants to come out and say, 'I fooled everybody.' Or, at least, everybody but me," Randi said. "But he can't do that. Universities and governments all over the world have spent millions of dollars investigating the Geller Effect, as he calls it. He'd be sued out the gazoo if he said he was faking it. Now I think he's trying to ease the transition with this word 'mystifier,' so people won't be so mad at him when he finally admits that none of it was true."

Geller did not reply to several emails from the Miami Herald seeking comment.

The Geller controversy helped Randi make a transition of his own, from performing magician to professional paranormal investigator — a transition that was sped along when one of his long-running escape stunts, breaking out of a padlocked milk can underwater, went dangerously awry in the early 1980s.

"I'd done that trick a million times, all over the world, from Germany to Japan," he recalled. "The can is only about four feet tall, so I had to scrunch down in it. My assistants sealed it, then put six padlocks on it, and lowered it into a vat of water. A curtain drops over it, enough time goes by that people are getting nervous, and then I burst from beneath the curtain, soaking wet."

This time, however, Randi was the one getting nervous. He knew right away that something was wrong with the can.

"The whole system jammed," he said. "I realized I wasn't going to be able to get out. But I knew panicking wasn't going to help. So I forced myself to sit back and wait." His assistants, under standing instructions to open the can themselves if Randi hadn't reappeared in 75 seconds, tore it open themselves shortly before his air ran out.

"Later, when I inspected it, it was obvious the can had been dropped somewhere in transit and badly dented," he said. "You can bet I got that fixed right away." Soon, though, he gave up escape tricks altogether, and eventually most professional magic, too. (Though he did design a trick guillotine for Alice Cooper's ghoulish show, touring with it as the executioner who rather convincingly "decapitated" Cooper on stage every night.)

Using his $273,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation, he launched imaginative and ultimately damning investigations of several American faith healers. With one, he sent a male actor dressed as a woman on stage claiming to have uterine cancer; the blissfully unaware faith healer failed to detect her actual gender but nonetheless pronounced her cured. Another "healer" was using tiny cheat sheets compiled by his wife and left hidden in a large Bible to seemingly identify strangers and their illnesses just with the power of his mind.

"My favorite one was Paul Popoff," said Randi, referring to a California faith-healer whose $4 million-a-year evangelical empire was driven into bankruptcy by the results. "I had some of my guys in the audience one night, and one of them reported he wore a tiny hearing aid. Whoa. A faith-healer who can't heal his own ears? I thought we had to look into this."

The hearing aid turned out to be a tiny radio receiver, on which Popoff's wife was delivering information she had covertly gathered on the audience members who were there to be healed. Randi's investigators were able to locate the signal and tape it.

"You'd hear her whisper into the radio, 'The woman in the green sweater is Mary, and she lives at 900 Oak Street,' and then a moment later, Popoff shouts, 'You're Mary! You live at 900 Oak Street,' " said Randi. "Even worse, we could hear the wife making fun of some of the sick people."

Busting the faith healers gave Randi considerable satisfaction. That's not always the case when he detects fraud. He was slightly saddened when he shared a bill with a Polish magician named Chan Canasta. Canasta was the man who, though he didn't know it, taught Randi that mind-reading trick with the book, the one he used on me.

"When I was 12, Canasta came to Toronto, and I went to see him in a downtown theater," Randi said. "He did the thing with the book and I was just floored. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I was so obsessed that I went back the next night. And just before he did the trick again, I had a thought — a thought about how he might have done it. My thought wasn't quite correct, but it was close enough that I eventually figured out how to do it myself."

Now, 30 years later, Canasta was opening for Randi. Randi watched the show, saw some new tricks, and congratulated Canasta backstage.

"I said, 'Hey, would you mind telling where you learned a couple of those tricks?' He looked at me with some arrogance, and said, 'Trick? Learn? What trick? It's all up here.' And he tapped his head, like he had special powers in there.

"So then I went out on stage and did my escape act, which was pretty spectacular in those days. Backstage, he rushed up and said, 'That was really something! Tell me how you did that.' And I just tapped my head and said, 'It's all up here.' And I never said a word about how much he thrilled me when I was 12."

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