Ricky Jay, magician with appearances in ‘Boogie Nights’ and ‘Magnolia,’ dies at 72

Ricky Jay attends the 50th New York Film Festival in 2012. He died Saturday in Los Angeles at 72.
(Jamie McCarthy / AFP/Getty Images)

Ricky Jay, the peerless sleight-of-hand artist, author, historian and actor, died Saturday in Los Angeles of natural causes. He was 72.

The news was confirmed by his lawyer Stan Coleman.

“He was an American treasure,” his longtime manager Winston Simone said. “And the coolest person ever.”

In addition to being a famed magician, Jay also made appearances in movies, most notably as the narrator of 1999’s “Magnolia” and as a cyber-terrorist in the 1997 James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies.” He was a fixture in films by his good friend David Mamet, including “House of Games,” “Homicide,” “Things Change,” “The Spanish Prisoner,” “State and Main” and “Heist,” and also acted in TV shows such as “The X-Files” and “Deadwood.”


“I always thought that I probably could act,” Jay told The Times in 1988. “The standard Robert Houdin definition of a magician is that he’s an actor playing the part of a magician.”

A documentary about Jay was released in 2013. “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay” explored his entry into magic as a young child, his early career as an opening act for rock groups in the ’70s, his friendship with Mamet and the master magicians who shaped his career, including Al Flosso, Slydini, Cardini, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller.

“I think the thing about these people who are so good is that they are perpetual students, as well as masters,” Jay told The Times in 2013. “Vernon and Charlie were always trying to learn and refine and invent. I don’t think they ever stopped thinking about it. I think when Charlie finally died, he had the most famous classic 19th century magic text on his night table.”

Jay, born Richard Jay Potash in Brooklyn, N.Y., grew up in the New Jersey suburbs, according to a widely quoted 1993 profile in the New Yorker.


In addition to acting, he also provided consulting for films like “Ocean’s Thirteen,” “The Prestige,” “The Illusionist” and “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.”

“I was blessed to have the legendary Ricky Jay as a consultant on ‘Rogue Nation,’” director Christopher McQuarrie tweeted Saturday night. “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.”

“Ricky Jay was a hero of mine,” tweeted writer and producer Brian Koppelman, who worked with the magician on “Ocean’s.” “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.”

Jay also wrote and hosted TV specials for CBS, HBO and the BBC, hosted and narrated the documentary miniseries “The Story of Magic” for A&E, and gave lectures on the art of magic, with presentations at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and Princeton University, according to his website. He also once served as the curator of the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts and was elected to membership in the American Antiquarian Society.


He is survived by his wife, Chrisann Verges.

Twitter: @sonaiyak



11:30 a.m.: This article was updated with a staff-written obituary.

This article was originally published at 7:25 a.m.