It’s fair to say for the entirety of Ricky Jay’s acting career, he pretty much played one character: Ricky Jay.
Jay first made his bones as a magician and stage raconteur. So prolific was he that The New Yorker once referred to him as “the most gifted sleight artist alive.” Jay also performed remarkable card tricks and once threw a playing card 190 feet at 90 miles per hour. He often played comedy clubs and opened for rock bands. To this day he is the only magician ever to be profiled on PBS’ American Masters.
Moviegoers got their first taste of Jay’s talents in House of Games, his film debut. It was also screenwriter David Mamet’s directorial debut. The two were so well matched that one could not be faulted for thinking they burst forth from the same lab, the same Petri dish.
Jay’s staccato delivery was a perfect match for Mamet’s distinctive dialogue. While many a fine and better known actor has enchanted the screen speaking Mamet’s words, it’s hard to think of anyone doing it better than Jay.
House of Games, Things Change, Homicide, The Spanish Prisoner, State and Main, Heist, and Redbelt. In seven different Mamet films, in roles large and somewhat small, Jay served as an onscreen avatar for Mamet. Every second he was in front of the camera you knew every word to leave his mouth would be done so in pristine fashion. Jay just couldn’t say a Mamet line wrong. I suspect Mamet often cast him for that reason. Because he knew this was one guy he wouldn’t have to worry about.
Onscreen, Jay played to his strengths. He was often cast as a morally flexible type. Hardbitten and unsentimental. While Jay will most rightly be remembered for his work with Mamet, he also delivered fine performances for Paul Thomas Anderson in both Boogie Nights and Magnolia. He was quite wonderful as well on the small screen, in Deadwood.
In an odd way, Jay’s stock and trade was that he was nothing less than authentic whenever the camera was pointed at him. Which is an ironic statement for a man who made his early living fooling those who stood before him into believing his trickery was true.
In the end, that just may have been Ricky Jay’s greatest act of magic.
Ricky Jay died on November 25th in his home, of natural causes. He was 72 years old.