Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice Bows on American Masters

Ricky Jay, man of many talents. Photo: Myrna Suarez/Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Ricky Jay shares the spotlight with 52 of his closest friends in his new AMERICAN MASTERS profile. Photo: Myrna Suarez/Film Society of New York.

Lon Chaney may have won fame and fortune as the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” but Ricky Jay has built a successful career on the world stage with his hands… or sleight-of-hand to be more precise. The master magician has also cornered the market as an actor in film, TV and the theater, as well as a performer in comedy and magic clubs and as a best-selling author, historian and leading collector of antiquarian books and artifacts in his field.

Ricky Jay is the focus of a wonderfully entertaining and informative hour-long profile, Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice, which launches the 29th season of American Masters on PBS tonight (Friday, January 23, 2015, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for air times in your region).  After its debut, the film will be available for streaming at http://pbs.org/americanmasters

In Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice, producer/director/editor Molly Bernstein and her co-director/producer Alan Edelstein not only reveal Ricky Jay’s surprising back story; but we are privy to an engrossing history of the sleight-of-hand masters who paved the way for Ricky Jay.  I urge you to throw caution to the wind and watch this captivating documentary profile. I promise that you’ll laugh; you’ll gasp; you may even tear up. And I guarantee you’ll find yourself rewinding scenes featuring some of his and his esteemed predecessors’ amazing routines.

Cardini (1895-1973) was born in the UK but became a great success in high end venues in New York and was, according to Ricky Jay, the greatest act he ever saw.  Photo courtesy Brad Ball.

Cardini (1895-1973), here with his wife Swan, was born in the UK but became a great success in high-end venues in New York City and was, according to Ricky Jay, the greatest act he ever saw. Photo courtesy Brad Ball.

Subtitled The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, the film features Jay as the predominant narrator, who in a running on-camera and voice-over narrative recalls the fascinating lives and milieu of the most influential magicians of  the 19th and 20th centuries, some of whom, like the great Cardini, Slydini, Al Flosso, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, impacted Jay directly.

Original vintage black and white (silent and sound) and color performance film footage, photos, program books, posters and artwork, much from Jay’s personal collection, open a window on the master magicians’ sleight-of-hand routines and the surprising venues where they showcased their talents. They became mentors to those lucky enough to be drawn into their circle.

One lucky lad was young Ricky Jay (then Ricky Potash), who, at four years old, became an apprentice to his grandfather, the noted amateur magician, Max Katz.  Katz’s circle of friends and colleagues were a veritable who’s who in the sleight-of-hand biz.  Imagine Ricky’s thrill when Al Flosso, the Coney Island Fakir, showed up to entertain at his bar mitzvah!

Ricky Jay's grandfather, Max Katz, was a well-known amateur magician and president of  the Society of American Magicians.  Photo courtesy of the Society of American Magicians.

Ricky Jay’s grandfather, Max Katz, was a well-known amateur magician and president of the Society of American Magicians. Photo courtesy the Society of American Magicians.

Young Ricky Jay is seen polishing his craft in marvelous photos and film footage from the 1950s, as well as in clips from entertaining stints on TV shows during his young adult years. Highlights also include vignettes from his later stage and film performances directed by playwright David Mamet, who recalls here how he tried to outwit the master to no avail.

Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants; Ricky Jay: On the Stem; and Ricky Jay: A Rogue’s Gallery — all directed by Mamet — were award-winning critical and commercial theatrical events.  As a film actor, Jay has been seen in David Mamet’s House of Games, Homicide,Things Change, The Spanish Prisoner, State and Main, and Heist, and in many other movies and TV/cable series.


Photo courtesy Hopscotch Films.

While Ricky Jay’s signature sleight-of-hand routines and comic patter play an entertaining role in Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice, the film never loses sight of the drama and mystery behind Jay’s appeal.  A wonderfully evocative music score adds weight to the levity.  British journalist Suzie Mackenzie caps a long-winded reminiscence with a spectacular revelation about her meeting with Jay that to this day reduces her to tears. And when, during the film’s grand finale, Ricky Jay faces the camera and recites a poem, “The  Game in the Windowless Room,” written for him by Shel Silverstein, only one word comes to mind: Wow!!

American Masters–Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice debuts tonight on PBS (Friday, January 23, 2015, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for premiere and repeat airtimes in your region.)  The film will also be available for streaming at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters  Don’t miss it! — Judith Trojan


About Judith Trojan

Judith Trojan is an Award-winning journalist who has written and edited several thousand film and TV reviews and celebrity profiles.
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6 Responses to Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice Bows on American Masters

  1. Ted Hicks says:

    Haven’t seen this yet, but we DVR’d it. Sounds really great. I saw a documentary about Ricky Jay last year (or earlier?) at Film Forum, but not one directed by Mamet. Fascinating guy.


    • Judith Trojan says:

      Thanks, Ted, I hope you get a chance to watch it! This is an entertaining intro to Ricky Jay’s career and the intriguing men who mentored him. The director packs a lot of interesting background info into this one-hour film.


    • I saw the one at the Film Forum also. This is the same one. It’s not directed by Mamet.


      • Judith Trojan says:

        Brian, as I mention in my review, the film that had its TV premiere on AMERICAN MASTERS–RICKY JAY: DECEPTIVE PRACTICE–is directed, produced and edited by Molly Bernstein. Further down in my review, I mention the feature films, co-starring Ricky Jay, that David Mamet directed, as well as the theatrical events starring Ricky Jay that Mamet also directed. David Mamet is ONLY an interviewee in RICKY JAY: DECEPTIVE PRACTICE.


      • Ted Hicks says:

        We watched this a couple night ago. About half-way through I realized this was the same as the film I saw at Film Forum, though shorter by almost 30 minutes and slightly retitled (the original is called “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay”). I was irritated that American Masters was kicking off their new series with a film made and released in 2012. Though I guess the slight-of-hand is appropriate.


      • Judith Trojan says:

        No need to be irritated. If a longer version of this film was screened at the Film Forum in New York City, it was in limited theatrical release. “American Masters” has aired docs (even as season premieres) that have had theatrical releases (e.g., Salinger, Seeger) prior to their PBS-TV premieres, introducing these films to a wider audience. The subtitle of the “American Masters'” film is, in fact, “The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay,” as I mention in my review. I haven’t seen the longer, theatrically released film; but I think the hour-long “American Masters” version is viable, informative and entertaining in its own right.


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