Ricky Jay, Magician and 'Boogie Nights' Actor, Dies at 70

Ricky Jay - Getty - H 2018
Photo by Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images

In addition to his long career as a magician, he also appeared in such films as 'Magnolia' (1999) as the narrator, 'Tomorrow Never Dies' (1997) as a cyber terrorist and 'Boogie Nights' (1997).

Ricky Jay, one of the most compelling figures in magic, died Saturday in Los Angeles of natural causes, The Hollywood Reporter has confirmed. He was 70.

"He was one of a kind. We will never see the likes of him again," his manager, Winston Simone, said.

In addition to his long career as a magician, Jay also appeared in such movies as Magnolia (1999) as the narrator, Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) as a cyber terrorist and Boogie Nights (1997) and several times in David Mamet's films, including House of Games; Homicide; Things Change; The Spanish Prisoner; State and Main; and Heist. He also had various roles on television series including The X-Files and Deadwood.

In a 1993 profile of Jay in The New Yorker, fellow magician and actor Steve Martin said, "I sort of think of Ricky as the intellectual élite of magicians. I’ve had experience with magicians my whole life. He’s expertly able to perform and yet he knows the theory, history, literature of the field. Ricky’s a master of his craft. You know how there are those teachers of creative writing who can’t necessarily write but can teach? Well, Ricky can actually do everything."

Jay provided consulting for several films as well, including Ocean's Thirteen, The Prestige and The Illusionist. Jay's partner in their Deceptive Practices consulting firm, Michael Weber, was one of the first to share the news of Jay's death. "I am sorry to share that my remarkable friend, teacher, collaborator and co-conspirator is gone," he tweeted.

Jay also provided consulting on Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. Director Christopher McQuarrie, who attributed the success of the film's opera sequence to Jay, wrote Saturday, "An off-handed comment he made inspired the climax of the opera sequence. It’s safe to say it would not be the same scene without him. He was the greatest of a vanishing breed." 

Fellow magician and actor Neil Patrick Harris also shared his condolences, writing, "Master magician and historian Ricky Jay has passed away. The breadth of his knowledge and appreciation for magic and the allied arts was truly remarkable. Such sad news, such a profound loss." 

In addition to acting, Jay wrote and hosted his own television specials for the likes of CBS, HBO and the BBC, and he also served as host and narrator of the first documentary miniseries on conjuring, The Story of Magic, for the A&E network. Jay also was a prolific speaker and writer on subjects including "conjuring literature, con games, sense perception and unusual entertainments," according to his website.

By his own account, he first performed magic at the age of 4. In an interview with The New Yorker, Jay said of his beginnings in the magical arts, "It was a natural assimilation. I mean, I never talk much about my family, but my grandfather was friendly with these guys, with magicians and ventriloquists on the highest levels, and I was just … interested. First I was drawn to the idea of learning how to do magic, but quickly wound up making that transition to learning about it."

Jay's love of magic was also the subject of a 2012 documentary, Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay. The Hollywood Reporter's review said of the film: "[It's] a documentary drunk on the infinite pleasures of playing-card trickery and smitten with the artists who've passed secrets down through the generations. The film will please Jay's many fans and holds special appeal on video, where viewers will be compelled to watch tricks repeatedly in slow-motion, trying (likely in vain) to figure them out."

Producer Frank Marshall and writer and producer Brian Koppelman were some of the notable Hollywood figures who took to Twitter to pay their respects. In a series of tweets, Koppelman wrote, "Ricky Jay was a hero of mine. And when I met him, got to know him, work with him twice, his kindness, professionalism, sense of humor, brilliance, made him even more of a hero. He was one of the greatest entertainers of our lifetime. And a true genius."

A native of Brooklyn, Jay was a longtime member of the Academy of Magical Arts and performed numerous times at its infamous Hollywood clubhouse, the Magic Castle. Academy of Magical Arts president Jim Steinmeyer, who worked with Jay on many shows, said, "Ricky Jay was a brilliant, innovative magician. Early in his career, he was a frequent visitor to the Magic Castle and an active member of the Academy of Magical Arts, where he spent time working closely with mentors like magicians Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller. Later, his successes in magic earned him Fellowship Awards from our organization."

He continued, "There's no question that his sophisticated and skillful talents, on the stage or through his books, created new audiences for magic and have had an important and lasting influence on the art. At the Academy of Magical Arts, he leaves behind many good friends and sincere admirers."