March 27, 2016 - 2:30 PM
PASADENA, Calif. - "No matter how smart or well-educated you are, you can be deceived."
That's the message delivered by James (The Amazing) Randi in "An Honest Liar." The entertaining and surprising documentary, directed and produced by Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom, premieres March 28 on the long-running PBS series "Independent Lens."
At 87, Randi looks more like Jasper Beardly on "The Simpsons" than Harry Houdini. He's still spry, however. He effortlessly shed ropes from his hands that had been tied behind his back by two reporters last January at the Television Critics Association winter press tour.
"Don't tear the suit," he quipped, "or I'll have to buy it."
Randi has been slipping knots since TV began.
Born and raised in Toronto, he was first seen on an early Canadian broadcast where he was suspended, upside down in a straitjacket, high over Niagara Falls.
He doesn't recall the year but says it was a lucrative gig. "I remember thinking how handsomely I was being paid while I was hanging upside down," he says.
Randi became fascinated with magic before he'd reached his teens, after seeing several shows by the great Harry Blackstone, Sr., at the long-gone Casino Theatre on Queen Street in Toronto.
By the time he moved to New York at 17, Randi got to know Blackstone, who helped mentor him as a magician. "He was my demigod," says Randi, who worked daring, Houdini-like stunts into his own bag of tricks.
"An Honest Liar" features clips from Randi's early Canadian TV appearances, including one showing him on the afternoon kids show "Razzle Dazzle" with Alan Hamel and Michelle Finney. He also appeared with CBC comedians Wayne and Shuster.
He went on to much greater fame in the U.S., appearing with Merv Griffin, Barbara Walters and over 30 times on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." Carson dabbled in card tricks and Randi says the two would spend time after the show in the host's white Corvette, talking magic. "He was really good but would never do magic on his show, preferring to leave that to the magicians," says Randi.
After nearly drowning in a metal bell-shaped container after a hatch failed to open, Randi cut back on the death-defying stunts. He eventually carved out a whole new career, debunking frauds such as "mentalist" Uri Geller as well as audience manipulations pulled by TV evangelists such as Peter Popoff.
One who kept his distance was the Amazing Kreskin.
"He wouldn't have a thing to do with me," says Randi. "Now he sells winning lottery numbers. Why would you sell winning numbers? You'd win it for yourself. He has a racket going on there."
Among his favourite magicians today are Penn and Teller. "Two of the finest gentlemen I know," says Randi, who claims responsibility for pairing them together.
He was once hired by Alice Cooper to add razzle dazzle to rock shows in the '70s, including a guillotine act where Alice got beheaded.
"I was the one who gave him a couple of gimmicks he used on his hands to produce flames," says Randi. "He would transform in front of me from Vincent Furnier into Alice Cooper — and it was a wonderful thing to see."
Randi can still pull off some amazing tricks. About two-thirds of the way in, the "Independent Lens" special has a twist few will see coming.
"We started out making a film about deception and about a man who is an honest liar and a deceiver of sorts," says director/producer Tyler Measom. In the middle of making the film, "a deception was revealed that spun Randi's life and his partner's life in a different direction and took the direction of the film in a very different path."
Measom admits "it came out of nowhere," but the filmmakers, with Randi's blessing, went with it.
He'd already agreed to a "warts and all" portrait," says Randi, who lives by the creed that "magicians are the most honest people in the world. They tell you they're gonna fool you, and then they do it."
— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016