Conjuror, actor and historian of magic

Born: June 26 1946;

Died: November 24

RICKY Jay, who has died aged 72, was by universal acclaim one of the three or four greatest sleight-of-hand conjurors and card mechanics of his time, and possibly of all time. Jay could make an audience member’s card appear to levitate from the deck, find consecutive cards with a one-handed cut or cascade, and – having let someone else shuffle – deal himself a perfect gin rummy hand, while dealing everyone else in the game a hand which appeared a certain winner.

At a dinner with members of his aikido club, he once turned two single dollar bills into a two-dollar bill. The other members were so infuriated by this trick that three weeks later, they ambushed him, naked, in the shower, and demanded he repeat the effect. Which he did.

Suzie Mackenzie, a Guardian journalist, claimed that she was reduced to tears when he made a cube of ice a foot each side appear from behind a menu on the table of a Los Angeles diner in a matter of seconds, after Jay had spent weeks refusing to provide a BBC film crew with a similarly impressive centrepiece for their documentary on him.

That trick was a product of Jay’s distinguishing feature as a magician and performer. He was a serious and rigorous scholar of the history of magic, who spent almost all of the money he ever earned on amassing a library of rare books on stage magic, but also on card sharps, con men, mountebanks and circus freaks. The ice trick had been an effect created by Max Malini (1873-1942), one of Jay’s heroes, the method for which had never been documented or repeated.

Jay’s talent, and his preternatural devotion to his art (he thought nothing of practising a shuffle for 12 to 15 hours a day, often for weeks on end, and would work on a trick for several years before unveiling it) won him legions of admirers. They included the playwright David Mamet, which led to an unexpected second career as a character actor in films, in which capacity he was outstanding.

A burly, ursine figure, Jay initially worked mostly in Mamet’s own pictures, usually as card sharps, con men and crooks (very much the territory which obsessed them both) but he also took roles in films made by Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan and ended up not only with a part in, but a job as the scriptwriter for, the first season of HBO’s Western drama Deadwood.

He appeared on stage on Broadway and at the Old Vic in London in shows focused on his card tricks; one review for Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants pointed out that there was a woman in the audience so riveted that she failed to notice she was sitting next to Al Pacino.

He wrote a number of learned, witty and exceptionally esoteric books: Cards as Weapons (1977); Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women (1986); Conjuring Literature in America 1786-1874 (1990); Magic: 1400s to 1950s (2009) and a history of dice, amongst several others.

Jay, as one of the foremost practitioners of his chosen profession, was strongly attached to the notion of secrets. He had himself directly learnt from many of the previous generations of magicians and card manipulators, but he knew they had not passed on everything, and was properly cagey about his own effects. But in his case, it applied also to his personal life. He stonewalled almost all questions about his parents, relationships, early background and even his birthday except when it involved conjuring and his contact with the greats of the past.

He was born Richard Jay Potash, probably – judging by the New York City records – on June 26 1946, the son of Stanley Potash and his wife Shirley (née Katz) and grew up at first in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. He never gave any explanation for why his relationship with his parents was so awkward, but was devoted to his maternal grandfather, Max Katz, an accountant by trade, but a serious amateur magician.

Katz knew many of the luminaries of sleight-of-hand magic, and Ricky grew up surrounded by them: he made his first performance at the American Magicians’ Convention age four, and was soon appearing on television. Here the deception began: in 1955, when he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, he was claiming to be seven. He was probably nine, and was decked out in a toreador costume in imitation of Clydini, a leading magician from whom he had been taking lessons. He had claimed to be seven in 1953, in the show Time for Pets.

The family moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey, but Ricky continued to travel into Manhattan for lessons with magicians, including Al Flosso, “the Coney Island Fakir”, who had a shop on 34th Street, and from whom Jay bought his first posters and memorabilia.

That became an obsession, and he became the world’s leading authority on such matters. He was, briefly, in later life, curator of the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and Related Arts, a 10,000-volume collection which he both commanded and enhanced, until it was seized as part of a financial dispute, in which Jay played no part.

After his grandfather died, Ricky, who claimed then to have been about 17 or 18, immediately left home: his movements thereafter he left vague. He worked in a number of bars in New York City and the Catskills; he enrolled in several universities (he thought five, though he “never got past freshman, and they were mainly Cornell”) and, naturally, could make a living playing cards. He hinted at this period, but never directly acknowledged it.

He also kept on doing stage magic. He appeared on mainstream TV while an undergraduate, and played the Electric Ballroom (between Timothy Leary lecturing on LSD and Ike and Tina Turner) before he was 21.

By his thirties, he had become a success, whether he liked it or not, though he had deliberately avoided the usual routes to making a career as a magician. But it was at this point that Jay’s interest in the esoterica of magic’s history became full-blown bibliomania. He quietly assembled the world’s greatest private collection on his subject, at first, simply because he wanted access to old tricks that might be given new spins.

When he began to show up in movies, he was always a delight. In Mamet’s early pictures (House of Games; The Spanish Prisoner; Homicide) he is rather typecast; in later films (State and Main, Heist) he had more room for manoeuvre. He was wonderful in Boogie Nights as the camera operator, and later in minor parts in Magnolia and The Prestige. He played a Bond villain’s chief henchman in the abysmal Tomorrow Never Dies.

He resisted marriage for many years, but finally gave in and married Chrisann Verges, a television producer, in 2002. She survives him