James Randi has escaped from a locked coffin submerged in the sea, and from a straitjacket dangling over Niagara Falls. If you chose a word from a 200-page book, he could guess it. Pick an object, he’d make it fade from sight.
He gave up performing as The Amazing Randi years ago, but his words to the audience at the end of each show foreshadowed his next act.
“Everything you have seen here is tricks,” he would say. “There is nothing supernatural involved here. I hope you’ll accept my word for that. Thank you and good evening.”
For more than two decades, Randi has been the country’s skeptic-in-chief, aiming his arrow of rationalism at psychics and faith healers, mediums and mentalists. He finds his targets so preposterous and those falling for them so desperate that he has become obsessed.
“It’s important,” he says, “because any misinformation like this — of people claiming they can subvert nature, they can do real miracles and they want to be paid for it ... that’s a very negative influence on society.”
Toronto-born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge’s career as a magician and escape artist came after he dropped out of high school and left home to join the carnival. His stage routine gave way to a nagging need to speak out against those whose work he regarded as nonsense — not just people who read palms and minds. He also took aim at chiropractors, homeopaths and others.
Randi’s “coming out” as a skeptic essentially arrived on a 1972 episode of “The Tonight Show” — he helped Johnny Carson set up Uri Geller, the Israeli performer who claimed to bend spoons with his mind. Randi ensured the spoons and other props were kept from Geller’s hands until showtime to prevent tampering. The result was an agonizing 22 minutes in which Geller was unable to perform any tricks.
In the years since, he has garnered a prestigious MacArthur fellowship, established his namesake James Randi Educational Foundation and become guardian of a $1 million prize earmarked for anyone who can prove supernatural powers. It remains unclaimed.
Randi will go to great lengths to expose. All of it has earned him countless fans, and countless other enemies.
‘It takes a magician to know’
Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine and executive director of the Skeptics Society, notes Randi has taken on the role another famous magician, Houdini, once held.
“It takes a magician to know how people deceive purposely. Scientists are not trained to detect intentional deception,” Shermer said. “If you care about reality, Randi is a lens through which to see how these claims are put to the test.”
Randi’s parents raised him Anglican, but he said from childhood, he never found the existence of God believable. He doesn’t draw much of a distinction between mainstream religious groups and other spiritual figures on the fringe. The only difference, he said, is more established faiths have much more power.
Still, Randi has focused many of his efforts on nontraditional faith leaders. Once, he showed messages television faith healer Peter Popoff claimed to be getting from God about his audience were actually coming from his wife through an earpiece. Another time, he spent days camped out in his car, eating Twinkies and drinking Pepsi as he waited for the chance to go through the trash of another faith healer, W.V. Grant, looking for signs of fraud.
He talks freely about death and what he believes will happen after.
“I think that the same way a computer dies when you put a bullet through it after pulling the plug out, I don’t think that we live beyond the grave at all,” he said. “I don’t see any compelling evidence to support that belief.”
For all the analysis Randi puts into everything, he still finds delight in observing magic he knows is a stunt or watching a film that is just fantasy. He talks about the crushing feelings of having a dying friend and speaks of the magic of love, though he has always been single.
‘The true believers will not pay any attention’
At 78, Randi is 5-foot-6, with gold-rimmed glasses, a bald head and bushy white eyebrows and beard. He drives a light blue Mazda Miata with “Amazing” on the license plate. Peacocks can be heard and seen on the lawn outside the foundation’s office and they leave their droppings on the path to the front door. Everyone calls him Randi.
He is energetic and lucid, quick with a joke, and looking back on his life he can’t help feeling some frustration. No matter what fraud-busting light he casts on purveyors of the paranormal, they seem to pull off escape acts of their own, continuing to win new followers and to earn checks Randi says are cashed at the expense of realism.
“I’m not able to do the things that I want to do,” he said. “The true believers will not pay any attention to evidence that does not show that they believe to be untrue.”
His voice grows as he begins the litany of offenders — Geller and Popoff and so forth. “I’m very angry,” he said. “I should be able to get them brought to justice.”
Geller, who remains a target on Randi’s Web site, acknowledges his appearance on “The Tonight Show” was a “humiliation” but notes his career has soldiered on.
“I thought, ‘This is it. I’m finished.’ But exactly the opposite happened,” Geller said. “People like Randi — skeptics — actually made my career. They did for me what a PR man would have asked a million dollars for.”
Randi is not the least bit shaken talking about death. He nearly died last year, undergoing double bypass surgery and remaining hospitalized for two months. Some might credit God for their survival, but not Randi. He has seen no proof.
Envelopes continuously arrive at Randi’s office seeking to take him up on his seven-digit challenge, seeking to prove the unprovable. None of the entries has made him question his beliefs, but his certainty, he acknowledges, always comes with a sprinkling of uncertainty, too.
“I am probably right. But I’m always only probably right,” he said. “Absolutes are very hard to find.”