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The Demystifying Adventures of the Amazing Randi 

Wednesday, Aug 26 2009
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A year after the church incident, Randi was in a bicycle accident that left him in a full-body cast for 13 months. Randi figured that even confined to the cast, he could still perform at nightclubs as a mentalist. "In those days, they were paying me $70 a week," he says. "Now that was a lot of Canadian dollars, I can tell you." He decided he would make it clear at the end of every show that he was simply using illusions. But he was disturbed when audience members would insist he had paranormal powers — ironically ignoring the only bit of truth he'd spat out all night. People seemed to want to believe in the supernatural.

Before he graduated high school, Randi left town with the carnival, performing as "Prince Ibis." At age 22, he pulled off a highly publicized escape from a Quebec City jail cell, a trick Houdini used to perform. A local newspaper dubbed him "L'étonnant Randi" — the Amazing Randi, "with an i at the end," he says, "like Houdini." For three decades, Randi toured the world by train, plane, and ship, headlining marquees from the Deep South to the Far East. He was bound in straitjackets and dangled over waterfalls; buried alive; and handcuffed and locked in an oversized milk jug.

But Randi could never shake the need to educate the naive. Working at nightclubs in East Asia, he learned new con-man techniques, and when he came back, he had a bug for debunking. In the 1960s, he hosted a radio show in New York in which he would, among other things, argue with astrologers ("Complete woo-woo," he recalls) and confront chiropractors ("Three chiropractors, three completely different diagnoses").

The height of his fame came when Johnny Carson invited him onto The Tonight Show. Carson had him back 37 times, and the two became good friends. "Johnny was a very skilled magician, very accomplished," Randi says.

Living in northern New Jersey, Randi befriended other great American thinkers, including astronomer Carl Sagan and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Randi and Asimov would sing Gilbert and Sullivan tunes together deep into the night. "He had such a wonderful voice," Randi remembers. Randi and Sagan would discuss their shared love of astronomy; Sagan helped name a comet after Randi.

Randi even played himself on an episode of Happy Days — he levitates Mrs. Cunningham, and in the final shot, he steals Fonzie's patented "Ehhh." At one point, Randi toured with Alice Cooper, cutting off the rock god's head with a trick guillotine at the end of every show.

In the '70s, Americans developed a new fascination with all things paranormal — crystals, Tarot cards, astrology parties. Randi found the trends disturbing; he was particularly irked by a young Israeli named Uri Geller, who said he could bend spoons with his mind and read the thoughts of strangers. Geller appeared on countless television shows and was featured in magazines in dozens of languages.

The degree to which people took Geller seriously bothered Randi. Reputable scientists from several labs studied "the Geller effect," how brainwaves affect pliable metal. Those scientists no longer discuss those experiments. In 1987, Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, invited Geller to the floor of Congress to send positive brain waves to then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The senator and the psychic later claimed at least partial success.

Randi tried to spread the message that Geller's techniques were simple charlatan tricks, old Israeli shtick masked by a trustworthy voice and a warm smile. Randi performed Geller's tricks himself for Barbara Walters. He arranged for Johnny Carson's staff to foil Geller on The Tonight Show. "I'm just feeling very weak tonight," Geller explained to Carson when he couldn't perform anything supernatural.

In 1975, Randi published his first book, The Magic of Uri Geller, later retitled The Truth About Uri Geller. A series of lawsuits and countersuits between Randi and Geller ensued. Geller won a suit against Randi in a Japanese court, claiming Randi had defamed him, but the judge awarded Geller 500,000 yen, or just $2,000. Randi boasts that he has never paid a dime to anyone who has sued him.

"Randi is my best unpaid publicist," Geller says in a phone call from his home in London. "If I had to get a calculator and see how much a high-priced Madison Avenue entertainment publicist would cost, I'd have to say that I got around $10 million worth of free publicity from skeptics."

Geller speaks with an old-world show-business charisma not unlike Randi's. Under other circumstances, the two might have even become friends, but to Randi, Geller has crossed an ethical line — he never came clean about his tricks.

Geller doesn't see it that way. "Without the skeptics, I wouldn't be Uri Geller," he says. "They made me. They created me. They kept the aura, the legend, the mystery, the mysticism around Uri Geller. I owe them bouquets of flowers for keeping my career alive. If they wanted to finish me off over three decades ago, all they had to do is not talk about me. They should have shut up."

Randi, of course, has offered to test Geller and to give him $1 million if he can prove his claims. But Geller has always declined, saying anything that would quiet skeptics — and by extension make him less controversial — would hurt his career. "If someone wants to stay in the business of being a psychic," he says, "they should simply ignore the skeptics."


Enticed by the warm weather, Randi moved to Florida in 1985, two years before he became a U.S. citizen. He wanted an organization of his own from which he could launch his lengthy investigations of paranormal claims. He established the nonprofit James Randi Educational Foundation in 1996 out of a split-level white Fort Lauderdale building with Spanish tile, stained glass over the entrance, and peacocks frolicking in the yard. Images of flying pigs hang on the walls next to old posters, magazine clips, and a letter from Johnny Carson (it accompanied a $100,000 donation). In Randi's Isaac Asimov Library are shelves of books on all things paranormal, from phrenology to faith healing, and a portrait of the writer friend for whom the room is named.

About The Author

Michael J. Mooney

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