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When Randi was 15, he heard of a preacher in his hometown of Toronto who claimed he could read minds. Randi had been reading every book he could find on magic and illusions, so he thought he could figure out what trick the preacher was using on his flock.
One Sunday morning, Randi watched the preacher set up a classic "one ahead" scam, using information obtained ahead of time to trick the crowd into believing he could read minds. Randi took the stage as he imagined his hero Houdini might have done and preached to the congregation about being duped, explaining the trick. He was immediately run out of the church.
Dissidence would become a regular reaction to Randi, who was born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in 1928. He describes himself as a quick learner but a bit of a rabble-rouser — he was once kicked out of his Sunday school class for heresy.
When he was 12, he stumbled into a matinee performance by famed magician Harry Blackstone Sr., who made a woman float in the air just feet from the stunned boy. "That got me," Randi says. "That grabbed me, and it never let go. It's still got a hold of my head right now."
A year after the church incident, Randi was in a bicycle accident that left him in a full-body cast for 13 months. Randi figured that even confined to the cast, he could still perform at nightclubs as a mentalist. "In those days, they were paying me $70 a week," he says. "Now that was a lot of Canadian dollars, I can tell you." He decided he would make it clear at the end of every show that he was simply using illusions. But he was disturbed when audience members would insist he had paranormal powers — ironically ignoring the only bit of truth he'd spat out all night. People seemed to want to believe in the supernatural.
Before he graduated high school, Randi left town with the carnival, performing as "Prince Ibis." At age 22, he pulled off a highly publicized escape from a Quebec City jail cell, a trick Houdini used to perform. A local newspaper dubbed him "L'étonnant Randi" — the Amazing Randi, "with an i at the end," he says, "like Houdini." For three decades, Randi toured the world by train, plane, and ship, headlining marquees from the Deep South to the Far East. He was bound in straitjackets and dangled over waterfalls; buried alive; and handcuffed and locked in an oversized milk jug.
But Randi could never shake the need to educate the naive. Working at nightclubs in East Asia, he learned new con-man techniques, and when he came back, he had a bug for debunking. In the 1960s, he hosted a radio show in New York in which he would, among other things, argue with astrologers ("Complete woo-woo," he recalls) and confront chiropractors ("Three chiropractors, three completely different diagnoses").
The height of his fame came when Johnny Carson invited him onto The Tonight Show. Carson had him back 37 times, and the two became good friends. "Johnny was a very skilled magician, very accomplished," Randi says.
Living in northern New Jersey, Randi befriended other great American thinkers, including astronomer Carl Sagan and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Randi and Asimov would sing Gilbert and Sullivan tunes together deep into the night. "He had such a wonderful voice," Randi remembers. Randi and Sagan would discuss their shared love of astronomy; Sagan helped name a comet after Randi.
Randi even played himself on an episode of Happy Days — he levitates Mrs. Cunningham, and in the final shot, he steals Fonzie's patented "Ehhh." At one point, Randi toured with Alice Cooper, cutting off the rock god's head with a trick guillotine at the end of every show.
In the '70s, Americans developed a new fascination with all things paranormal — crystals, Tarot cards, astrology parties. Randi found the trends disturbing; he was particularly irked by a young Israeli named Uri Geller, who said he could bend spoons with his mind and read the thoughts of strangers. Geller appeared on countless television shows and was featured in magazines in dozens of languages.
The degree to which people took Geller seriously bothered Randi. Reputable scientists from several labs studied "the Geller effect," how brainwaves affect pliable metal. Those scientists no longer discuss those experiments. In 1987, Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, invited Geller to the floor of Congress to send positive brain waves to then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The senator and the psychic later claimed at least partial success.
Randi tried to spread the message that Geller's techniques were simple charlatan tricks, old Israeli shtick masked by a trustworthy voice and a warm smile. Randi performed Geller's tricks himself for Barbara Walters. He arranged for Johnny Carson's staff to foil Geller on The Tonight Show. "I'm just feeling very weak tonight," Geller explained to Carson when he couldn't perform anything supernatural.
In 1975, Randi published his first book, The Magic of Uri Geller, later retitled The Truth About Uri Geller. A series of lawsuits and countersuits between Randi and Geller ensued. Geller won a suit against Randi in a Japanese court, claiming Randi had defamed him, but the judge awarded Geller 500,000 yen, or just $2,000. Randi boasts that he has never paid a dime to anyone who has sued him.