James Randi, the famed magician who was a regular on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show and later formed the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry to investigate and challenge paranormal claims, died on Tuesday. He was 92.
“We are very sad to say that James Randi passed away yesterday, due to age-related causes,” the James Randi Educational Foundation said in a statement. “He had an Amazing life. We will miss him.”
Born in Toronto, Canada, he became interested in magic as a kid. By the 1940s, he launched his career as an illusionist and escape artist. His feats included freeing himself from straitjackets while dangling from various precarious positions to his escaping a sealed coffin under water on The Tonight Show.
He was a favorite regular on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, having appeared as a guest more than 30 times alongside a regular appearance on the children’s TV series Wonderama. In the Seventies, Randi joined Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies tour, where he “decapitated” the rock star on a nightly basis with a guillotine he devised.
Later in life he moved away from illusions and magic and focused on investigating and challenging paranormal claims, exposing frauds in the process. He cofounded the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation and reason in examining extraordinary or controversial claims.
Randi challenged a number of dubious subjects — notably televangelist Peter Popoff who claimed to heal his followers and would seemingly know what their afflictions were without being told. Randi exposed Popoff’s use of an electronic transmitter to obtain information about his subjects which his wife would convey to him, during a Tonight Show episode. Randi also took on Uri Geller, who claimed to use telepathy to bend objects, such as spoons. Geller’s claims were also refuted in a Tonight Show episode after Randi advised the staff to replace Geller’s objects with their own props and unbeknownst to Geller, who was unable to bend them.
Randi’s commitment to exposing frauds was backed by his One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, in which his James Randi Educational Foundation committed to doling out $1 million to anyone who could prove supernatural or paranormal activity that met certain scientific criteria. Though more than 1,000 people tried, no one succeeded in winning the challenge.
In 1986, he was the recipient of the MacArthur genius grant and was also the subject of PBS documentary series Independent Lens and the 2016 documentary An Honest Liar.
“My inspiration, my hero, my mentor, my friend. I will talk to him the rest of my life and my memory of him will answer. I didn’t absorb enough wisdom, but I absorbed a lot,” Penn & Teller’s Penn Jillette wrote. He also credited Randi for “inventing us.“
“We’ve lost one of the greats. James Randi was an amazing man, a wonderful magician, and a thoughtful intellectual who brought the joy of scientific inquiry to millions,” Bill Nye wrote in homage. “He left the world better than he found it. He will be missed.”