No sirens were blaring. No guns were drawn. Nobody was screaming or shouting.
But in the blink of an eye, the love of the Amazing Randi’s life — the man he had shared a home with for two dozen years — vanished.
In 2011, federal agents showed up on Randi’s doorstep in Plantation, Fla., looking for his partner, José Alvarez. They said they needed to talk to Alvarez about identity fraud, handcuffed him and hauled him away. Randi was left behind, the agents’ business cards in hand.
“I was totally bewildered by it, and I’m in the business of bewildering people,” he said. “I didn’t know which way to turn. It was the hardest moment of my life. I’ve been dangled over Niagara Falls, but nothing compares to this — nothing.”
For the better part of his 86 years, Randi — born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge — has been trying to get people to see the world as he does. After making a name for himself as the most daring escape artist since Harry Houdini — he did, in fact, get out of a straitjacket while suspended upside-down above Niagara Falls — Randi decided in the early 1970s that his expertise in magic could be put to greater use than mere entertainment. He set forth to expose psychics, faith healers, anyone who made a profit using “supernatural” powers.
This was the story co-directors Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom set out to tell when they set out to make a documentary about Randi three years ago. They wanted the film to focus on Randi’s role as the leader of the skeptic movement. It would explain how he had uncovered frauds like Peter Popoff — a televangelist who used a hidden earpiece to “cure” the ailments of his followers — and so-called spoon-bender Uri Geller.
Their film, “An Honest Liar,” opened Friday in Los Angeles. But it turned out to be a very different one than they had initially had in mind. Because what the filmmakers discovered was that the man who made his name revealing frauds had also engaged in a deception of his own.
Seeking an answer
Cameras had been following Randi for the better part of a year when Alvarez was arrested. In fact, Weinstein was set to travel to Florida on the morning of the raid. And then he received a call from a panicked Randi: “There’s been an emergency. Don’t come.”
But Weinstein went anyway, seeking an answer to the question that would become the center of “An Honest Liar”: Just how much did Randi know about his partner’s true identity? Was he aware that the man he had lived with for more than three decades was born Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga? That he was not Jose Alvarez, a U.S. citizen whose identity had been stolen?
Randi met Alvarez in 1986 at the Fort Lauderdale Public Library. Alvarez, who’d recently fled his native Venezuela after being persecuted for his sexual orientation, was there doing research for one of his art projects. Randi saw Alvarez poring over space imagery and invited him to his house to check out his Questar telescope.
“So I went to his place, and he’d calibrated the telescope so that I could see Saturn with the rings,” Alvarez, 53, recalled. “Then Saturn left the viewfinder, and I said, ‘It moved.’ Randi said, ‘No, the Earth moved.’ And at that moment I thought, ‘I want to get to know this man more.’ ”
They made for a bit of an odd couple. There was a 33-year age difference between them. Randi looked like a wizard: He dressed professorially, always sported a bushy white beard and was bald. Alvarez, meanwhile, was trim and fit with a thick head of curls. And he had a calmness to him that seemed foreign to Randi — so intense, always ready to fire back at his critics with something astute.
But somehow, it worked. The two even teamed up professionally, with Alvarez pretending to be a spirit channeler named Carlos in a ruse to fool the Australian media. At first, Alvarez, who was following the teachings of an Indian guru when he moved to the States, looked to Randi as a moral compass.
But as the years have begun to take their toll on Randi, those roles have begun to dissolve a bit. Randi had a heart attack in 2006, and three years later was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Then in 2013, he was forced to have surgery after doctors found aneurysms in his legs. Nowadays he walks with a cane — a gift given to him by the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims on the Paranormal — topped with a shiny silver skull.
He’s always been little — 5-foot-5 — but appears to have thinned out considerably in recent years. He managed to travel to Los Angeles this week to promote “An Honest Liar.” But sitting in his room at the Magic Castle Hotel next to Alvarez, he looked as if he were swimming in his black suit. His pants were pulled up well above his waist and secured by a flashy belt buckle. His cuff links were handcuffs — “in case you get a butterfly you have to control” — and on his jacket he had a couple of pins given to him by elite magic organizations.
Even though he did not cut an imposing figure, his mind seemed as sharp as ever. He raged against those who are “not that sophisticated,” who believe in the supernatural despite proof because they “need some magic in their lives.”
“And if they really look around,” he said, “if they look through that telescope like [Alvarez] did — there’s so many wonders to the real world. He saw Saturn as it was 23 minutes ago at the speed of light — 186,000 miles per second. That’s how far away it was, and you’re seeing it glimmering there in front of you.”
“Randi has a certainty about things,” said Alvarez, who was dressed more casually than his partner in a sweatshirt. “A certainty that I don’t have. I feel that there are things that are much more ambiguous.”
“I’m hard core,” Randi acknowledged. “But I understand his point of view.”
“I understand,” Alvarez continued, “that a lot of those people may not have the access or the resources... “
“Or the courage!” Randi insisted.
“I wouldn’t say courage,” Alvarez said. “We’re human, and we’re fallible. I remember one time a friend of mine died, and there was a preacher telling his family the craziest things. I thought it was inappropriate, but there are moments where you simply have to let it be.”
Deep down, Randi must know this — that deception can be used, in essence, for good. But even now, after authorities have ruled that Alvarez will not be deported, Randi remains cryptic about how the situation affected his ethics. When the filmmakers tried to get to the truth of the situation, they clashed — resulting in a climactic scene in the film in which Randi shares what he really knew about Alvarez’s identity and then angrily insists that footage must not be excised from the final cut.
“For him to lie about something in the Amazing Randi persona is wrong,” said co-director Weinstein. “But deeper down, he knows that there are times when deception can be helpful.”
Outwardly, Randi’s mission has remained the same. His foundation still holds an annual Million Dollar Challenge in Las Vegas, where anyone who proves to have legitimate supernatural abilities will be given the big prize.
“I know he has a public persona that is pretty cantankerous,” said Alvarez, who still has no formal immigration status in the U.S. “But when you get to know him, you see what a caring person he is. The reason he does what he does is to help people who are being taken advantage of. He will go to any lengths to keep somebody safe from harm. And that’s what he did for me.”