James Randi: magician, illusionist, writer, sceptic

Born: August 7, 1928;

DiedL October 20, 2020

JAMES Randi, who has died aged 92, was known to millions as The Amazing Randi. As a magician and illusionist, he captivated audiences worldwide, and broke Harry Houdini’s record for staying in a sealed metal coffin. Other feats of daring saw a straitjacketed Randi hung upside down six stories high over Broadway, New York, in 1955, freeing himself in two-and-a-half minutes. He performed a similar life-threatening routine in 1976 over Niagara Falls.

Like Houdini, Randi remained sceptical of psychic and other paranormal claims made by those he saw as defrauding the public. He made no secret that his performance was based on trickery, and had no truck with those who claimed to have special powers. This became an obsession, and he spent much of his life investigating various forms of what he called ‘woo woo’.

In collaboration with TV talk show host Johnny Carson, Randi famously humiliated Uri Geller, who had become famous on the back of his apparent ability to bend metal objects using his mind. Randi called Geller a fraud; and, prior to Geller’s appearance on Carson’s The Tonight Show in 1973, Carson and Randi made sure Geller wasn’t allowed anywhere near any show props. The result was an excruciating 22 minutes in which Geller’s abilities failed to manifest themselves. In 1975, Randi wrote a book, The Truth About Uri Geller.

A decade later, Randi also exposed faith healer Peter Popoff, whose shtick involved addressing audience members by name and identifying their afflictions. Randi planted an accomplice in the audience with a radio scanner and a tape recorder. While Popoff claimed to be channelling God, the scanner picked up his wife’s voice relaying previously sourced information about the audience into a tiny receiver placed in her husband’s ear. Randi broadcast the recording alongside footage of the performance on TV, and for a while this forced Popoff out of business.

In 1996, Randi founded The James Randi Educational Foundation. Under its auspices, he instigated the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. This offered a prize to anyone who could demonstrate evidential proof of any paranormal, supernatural or occult power or event under test conditions agreed by both parties. By the time he stepped down from the Foundation in 2015, the prize was unclaimed, and has remained so.

Randi was born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in Toronto, Canada, the eldest of three children to Marie and George Zwinge. His scepticism started early, in Sunday school, where he questioned the veracity of Bible stories being read. Aged 12, he witnessed a performance by American stage magician Harry Blackstone Sr that changed his life. Three years later, he exposed a mind-reading preacher during a performance, and for several hours was held in a prison cell. It was the last thing to confine him.

At 17, he dropped out of school and joined a travelling carnival, initially as a mentalist before becoming an escape artist. Following an escape from a Quebec jail cell, he was hailed as The Amazing Randi by a reviewer. The name stuck. Randi spent the 1940s and 1950s touring the world as a magician and escapologist, trading on the voyeurism of a thrill-seeking audience, and the potential that he might just not come out of his act alive.

In 1956, he appeared live on TV, performing a stunt in which he remained in a sealed metal coffin submerged in a hotel swimming pool for an epic 104 minutes. This broke Houdini’s record of 93 minutes, though Randi was at pains to point out he was younger than Houdini had been when he created his record.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Randi became a regular on radio and TV. His mix of theatrics and cynicism was picked up by rock showman Alice Cooper, who made Randi part of the theatrics for his 1973/1974 Billion Dollar Babies tour. Randi appeared onstage as both a crazed dentist and Cooper’s executioner, utilising his specially-built guillotine to “behead” Cooper.

In 1976, along with Carl Sagan, speculative fiction writer Isaac Asimov and others, Randi formed the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. In 1986, Randi received a $272,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Much of this was spent in legal fees when Geller unsuccessfully sued the CSICOP in 1991. The organisation later changed its name to the Committee for Sceptical Inquiry.

Randi stopped performing magic at the age of 60, but continued his assault on what he saw as confidence tricksters of pseudo-science. As well as The Truth About Uri Geller, other books by Randi include Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and Other Delusions (1982), The Faith Healers (1987), and An Encyclopaedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (1995).

In 2010, Randi came out as gay, and in 2014, a feature-length documentary on his life and work, An Honest Liar, was funded through Kickstarter. Pre-dating the “fake news” era, Randi’s relentless exposes of those exploiting a gullible public to believe in things that aren’t true was a necessary counter to dishonesty. “Magicians are the most honest people in the world,” Randi said in An Honest Liar. “They tell you they’re going to fool you, and then they do it.”

Randi is survived by his husband, Deyvi Pena, whom he married in 2013; his sister, Angela Easton, and his brother, Paul Zwinge.