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James Randi (1928–2020), stage magician who debunked the paranormal

by Linnea Crowther

James Randi was a popular stage magician known as the Amazing Randi, who worked to debunk claims of paranormal abilities.

The Amazing Randi

Born Randall Zwinge, Randi became popular on TV in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, appearing on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson (1925 – 2005) dozens of times. His act included escape feats similar to Harry Houdini’s (1874 – 1926) – in fact, he surpassed Houdini’s record when he was submerged underwater in a sealed metal coffin for 104 minutes, live on “Today” in 1956. He also performed apparently paranormal feats like bending spoons without touching them. But Randi delighted in outing his “Magic” as fake, calling himself a liar and a cheat whenever his sleight of hand successfully deceived his audience. Randi became a notable pop culture figure, touring with Alice Cooper in 1973 and 1974 and playing Cooper’s onstage “executioner.” He visited the White House in 1975 to perform for children, and he hosted “The Amazing Randi Show” in the 1960s. Later, Randi was featured on several of Penn & Teller’s shows, and the duo cited him as an influence.

Debunker

Another way Randi was similar to Houdini was that he made it his mission in life to expose the trickery of others as well. In 1976, Randi founded the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Through the committee, he offered prizes ranging up to one million dollars to anyone who could demonstrate paranormal abilities that he couldn’t debunk. No one ever won a prize from the committee. Among the notable figures Randi debunked was televangelist and healer Peter Popoff, discovering that Popoff wore a small earphone and received information from his wife, backstage, that allowed him to appear to have amazing psychic powers. Randi also worked to find a way to debunk Uri Geller, the famous spoon bender, noting that he saw Geller inserting into his act a spoon that had previously been bent.

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Notable quote

“Before you accept it, remember that saying, ‘Maybe it’s too good to be true.’ Think about it carefully, and look up research. You’ve got the Internet in front of you, what a wonderful weapon to have. I mean, this is something you can flourish anywhere at all that you can find an electric plug to fire up your computer with.” —from a 2015 interview with Skeptical Inquirer

Tributes to James Randi

Full obituary: The Washington Post

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