In Memoriam: Ricky Jay (1948-2018)

Master magician, actor, magic consultant/historian and martial arts aficionado Ricky Jay has passed away at the age of 70.

Although Jay’s fame was due to his extensive accomplishments as a scholar and performer, his long-term involvement with the martial arts dated back to the 1970s, when he took up karate.  He later admitted that, as a professional sleight-of-hand artist, the danger of hand injuries from intensive martial arts training had been a foolish risk.

After karate came aikido – a style that shares more than a few principles with the art of legerdemain.  His aikido sensei was Fred Neumann, who would recall challenging Jay to repeat a particularly confounding sleight of hand trick while Jay was showering after a training session.  Without missing a beat, and with no evident means of preparation, Jay casually performed the feat again, stunning his sensei.

Ricky Jay’s 1977 book Cards as Weapons quickly became an underground cryptohoplological classic, purporting (with a fairly straight face) to teach a unique method of self-defence via card-scaling; the venerable magician’s feat of hurling playing cards with great accuracy and force.  The book combined absurdist humour, quirky historical scholarship and practical instruction, also featuring “guest appearances” by some of Jay’s acquaintances, including singer Emmylou Harris and scientist Carl Sagan.

Twenty years later, when he was cast as a villain in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, Jay was asked to exert his card-throwing prowess in a scene with Pierce Brosnan as Bond:

At one point, they wanted me to throw cards as weapons to attack Bond, but the first time they asked me to do it in rehearsal, I was an enormously long distance away from Pierce Brosnan, and I warned them that the cards went very, very hard and fast, and they said no no, they had someone in front of it to block the shot, and I again said, “I don’t think you should do that,” they said, “No, no, it’ll be okay.” And Pierce seemed to be fine with it.

So I whaled a card, I don’t know how far, 50 or 75 feet away, and they said, “Just throw it at his face,” and I hit him right above the eye, and realized that I almost ruined the most lucrative franchise in the history of film. Suddenly that scene was no longer in the movie. [Laughs.] So in a way that was horribly disappointing, but the rest of it was fun.

Here’s the master himself, performing a number of his “cards as weapons” stunts:

In 2002, Jay playfully scaled cards at action movie star Jackie Chan during a mutual appearance on a talk show hosted by Conan O’Brien.

Throughout his career, the magician frequently drew parallels between the disciplines of close-up magic and martial arts, and likened the mentor/mentee relationships of traditional magic apprenticeship to those of a sensei and his students.  Although he “retired” into more sedate and academic pursuits later in life, Jay’s involvement in the martial arts continued via his close friendship with playwright, screenwriter and jiujutsuka David Mamet.  Mamet cast Jay as an unscupulous fight promoter in his peculiar, cerebral martial arts movie Redbelt (2008):

And finally, here’s Jay reciting a poem written for (and about) him by the late Shel Silverstein, encapsulating the arcane dangers of a life lived in the service of deception:

Rest in peace, Ricky Jay – man of mystery, scholar of the obscure and sworn enemy of the mundane.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *