James Randi was one of the most influential thinkers and teachers of the past half century. The Canadian-born magician-turned intellectual passed away on Tuesday in Florida at the age of 92.
Born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in 1928 in Toronto, Ontario, he began performing magic at a very young age. Early on, he adopted the stage name "The Amazing Randi" and began touring with a carnival. He later worked in nightclubs in and around Toronto. He quickly made his way to TV starting in the 1950's.
Though Randi was extraordinarily gifted at slight-of-hand tricks and feats of magic, he had much more ambitious goals than to just fool and entertain audiences with parlor magic.
Increasingly, he began to use his talent at magic to educate and enlighten. Randi impersonated quacks and swindlers, pretending to read minds and reveal "supernatural powers." Then, he'd smash the illusion he'd masterfully set up and let is audience know it was all just a trick, a clever stunt that he hoped would enlighten those gullible to the purveyors of superstition for profit.
Randi's honesty and integrity sometimes overshadowed his own astute talents as a master showman. He performed remarkable escape acts from jail cells and safes and vaults all around the world. In 1956, he appeared on live television where he remained encased inside a sealed metal coffin submerged in a hotel swimming pool for 104 minutes, breaking Harry Houdini's previous record which had been 93 minutes.
For the next 20 years, Randi performed thousands of times in more than 30 countries. One of the many highlights of his rising fame was a spectacular 1976 performance for the Canadian show called The World of Wizards, where Randi escaped from a straitjacket while suspended upside-down over Niagara Falls.
Eventually, his life's work would come to transcend just performing and playing the role of the thrill seeker. He became a truth seeker.
Randi spent the later half of his life exposing trickery, with a particular disdain for those who used deception to fool people for profit. Indeed, he grew increasingly concerned about the people who refused to embrace the fact that it was all an act. He was even more worried that the same tricks he used to entertain mass crowds were also employed by cheats and con artists, including many "respectable" performers and celebrities. He used his platform to sway many towards mindful skepticism.
Though he stood at only 5' 1", he was tower of a firewall against mass ignorance, superstition, quackery, and the cavalcade of lies promulgated the world over by con men/women, charlatans, fortune tellers, liars, frauds, preachers, pretenders, swindler, faith healers, and all the horrible man-made snake oil pimps that make so many millions of lives miserable through fraud.
Two of his greatest debunking successes included exposing international fraudster Uri Geller and later the American televangelist Peter Popoff.
Eager to use his celebrity to teach, Randi formed the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (Csicop), funded by donations and by sales of the magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer. And so, Randi launched into a new phase of his career, traveling the world and speaking and often performing as a "debunker" of lies – including everything from homeopathy to ghosts.
Randi performed magic at conferences and even on television well into his late 80's. He retired from public life two years ago.
Penn Jillette, influenced heavily by Randi and a magician and skeptic in his own right, remembered Randi in this tweet.
The Amazing Randi passed away yesterday.
What an amazing life.
What an amazing legacy.
Personal Note: The first time I met Randi was about 15 years ago in Las Vegas. He came into a restaurant with Penn Jillette (the famous magician) and a party of perhaps 5-6 people. They sat next to my table, and given this rare chance to meet Randi, I could not resist.At what I hope would be an opportune moment, I approached the VIP table and I could sense that Penn (who stands out in any room because of his size, voice, and domineering presence) was mildly annoyed with the interruption. Presumably, Penn thought he was about to be approached for an autograph or handshake, not sure if selfies were a thing back then, but you get the gist.So, I approached the table and Randi is sitting here barely noticeable. He was in his 70's then, but still seemed very frail. I looked at Penn, who was prepared to deal with yet another fan, but then tapped Randi on the shoulder and asked if could just share one minute with him.Randi seemed genuinely surprised to be noticed in this gathering and not only was gracious, he stood up and we began talking. I didn't want to take up much of his time but did manage to spend 45 seconds telling him how important his life and work had been to me up to the point. I even noted that "Flim-Flam" (a great book of debunking superstition published in the early 1980s) changed my life and put me on the path to skepticism and science and curiosity and discovery.This was a speech Randi had heard many times before, in other languages, from young people and old, and male and female, and so many others who looked to Randi as a pioneer and a lonely voice in a vast sea of ignorance. He nodded and told me how much the kind words meant, and even gave me his card. After our short conversation, I looked over at Penn. He was smiling. That kinda' made my day, meeting Randi and then Penn taking pleasure in Randi getting his due from a fan. On this day of remembrance of The Amazing Randi, I know some of my dear friends were much closer to him than I ever was, and so I will always be grateful to Emily J. and Kim S. and Paul H. for allowing me opportunities to spend time within that circle of enlightenment.We are better and smarter for having the gift of James Randi and the lasting legacy of his life's work. There can be no grander gift to strangers than the impartation of such knowledge and inspiration.
I met Randi again in 2015: