I have been a fan of Ricky Jay’s for nearly a quarter century, when my ex got a copy of Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women for Christmas circa ’88, inspiring my exploration of vaudeville, circus and allied variety arts that continues to this day (the book became mine after I spilled beer all over it). I had always been interested in circus and vaudeville and so forth, but reading that book inspired the rather intense focus I’ve given those subjects ever since. It also inspired my play The Strange Case of Grippo the Apeman, which is largely based on the famous idiot savant “Blind Tom,” whose story is recounted in the book.
At any rate, Deceptive Practice tells the amazing story of Jay’s own life, casting him as the product of the many mentors who’ve taught him, largely in his own words (with a narrational assist from Dick Cavett). Born Richard Jay Potash, Jay was the grandson of an amateur magician with many close friends among the professionals. (Magic is one of those rare fields where it’s possible to be a well-respected amateur). His grandfather was friends with the likes of Al Flosso, Slydini, Roy Benson and Cardini, from all of whom he learned. The film has footage of the young Ricky Jay doing magic on television in clips when he was as young as five years old. In his teens, he performed at the Electric Circus, wedged between Timothy Leary lecturing on acid, and Ike and Tina Turner. In his twenties, the long haired Jay was a fixture on The Tonight Show, The Dick Cavett Show and the Dinah Shore program — a terrific clip has him fooling around with a very early-career Steve Martin. Then, he CONTINUED to learn, spending long hours at the Magic Castle in LA under the tutelage of legends Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller.
By the 80s, it is of course, Jay himself who is the legend, with his books, his one-man Broadway shows, and later, the appearances in the films of David Mamet, and Paul Thomas Anderson, as well as David Milch’s Deadwood. The film take us as close as we’re probably going to get to a man who makes subterfuge and deception his life’s work. Even people who know him well like Mamet and Michael Weber (Jay’s business partner) shed no light on what makes him tick; they don’t even try to. Why? The answer I think lies in an anecdote told by a journalist who spent several hours with Jay on a hot, miserable day, after having spent several miserable weeks on a film shoot, only to have him surprise her with a special, once-in-a-life time illusion designed only for her. It’s the sort of memory one takes with oneself to the grave, but only because it seems like a miracle. The woman is visibly moved as she recounts the story. Why spoil things by meddling in how he did it?
At any rate, as proud owner of a copy of this film, I intend to watch it and watch it and watch it. There’s inspiration aplenty for any sort of vaudevillian here. We’are all illusionists if we’re doing it right.