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Ricky Jay documentary reveals his magical life and mentors

The famous magician appears in 'Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay' as do friend and writer-director David Mamet and magician Michael Weber. Jay says his most important mentors were Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller.

May 16, 2013|By Susan King
  • Ricky Jay performs magic and acts and has a company that helps productions that have magic scenes.
Ricky Jay performs magic and acts and has a company that helps productions… (Jesse Dylan )

Renowned sleight-of-hand magician, actor, author and historian Ricky Jay learned his craft from the best in the field, including Al Fosso, Slydini, Cardini, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller.

These men never made a lot of money during their long careers, and in the case of Cardini, he didn't appear on television for fear of having his act exposed and copied. But to Jay, these master magicians were superstars.

"I think the thing about these people who are so good is that they are perpetual students, as well as masters," said Jay, 65, in a recent phone interview. "Vernon and Charlie were always trying to learn and refine and invent. I don't think they ever stopped thinking about it. I think when Charlie finally died, he had the most famous classic 19th century magic text on his night table."

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Jay pays tributes to his role models in the new documentary "Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay," which opens Friday.

Directed by Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein, "Deceptive Practice" explores how Jay got involved in magic as a 4-year-old thanks to his amateur magician grandfather, Max Katz, and his early career as a long-haired performer who worked as an opening act for rock groups in the 1970s. It also delves into his friendship and longtime collaboration with writer-director David Mamet, who transformed Jay into an actor of note in such films as 1987's "House of Games" and directed him in his acclaimed one-man show, "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants."

The documentary features interviews with Mamet and magician Michael Weber, the latter of whom created the firm Deceptive Practices with Jay. The company provides "Arcane Knowledge on a Need-to-Know Basis" to film, television and state productions, including "The Prestige," "The Illusionist," "Forrest Gump" and the upcoming Hugh Jackman Broadway musical, "Houdini."

There are also clips from "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants," early appearances in the 1970s on such TV shows as "The Dinah Shore Show" and even one when he was a little boy performing magic on television.

A private person, Jay was initially reluctant to do the documentary because of his contentious experience with producers on a BBC documentary about him. But he agreed when Bernstein and Edelstein proposed the idea of including his mentors in the film.

"He really wanted to pay tribute to these guys," Bernstein said.

"They were able to find a lot of fascinating footage, some of which I had never seen," Jay said.

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Jay speaks with great passion and love for the two most important mentors he had as an adult: Vernon, the Canadian-born sleight-of-hand expert known as the Professor, who held court at the Magic Castle, and Miller, whom he met after he moved to Los Angeles.

He was so devoted to Vernon, Jay moved out from New York to L.A. four decades ago so he could study with the magician who was then in his late 70s. (He died in 1992).

"I think a lot of people just assumed I came to L.A. to do more television and get into show business," said Jay. "I had already done 'The Tonight Show' a few times when I was still in college in the east," he said. "I guess at that point, I thought, well, I'm only going to get to be able to be with him for a year or two, so I better do this. Then he lived until he was 98."

Jay admitted some magicians perceive him to be "irascible or even elitist. They will show me something that isn't very good, and they will expect me to rave about it. I have come up in the world where I have seen the greatest people in the profession perform since the time I was a kid, so the standard against which I weigh these things is pretty heavy."

susan.king@latimes.com

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