The Amazing Johnathan, the magician and comedian who was a longtime fixture on late-night television and the Las Vegas strip, died Tuesday, Feb. 22, The Las Vegas Review-Journal reports. He was 63.
The cause of death was end-stage heart failure, per the New York Times, with the entertainer — born Johnathan Edward Szeles — previously revealing he had been diagnosed with a heart condition. Szeles’ wife, the performer Anastasia Synn, confirmed her husband’s death, telling the Review-Journal he died in his sleep Tuesday night.
“The last thing I said to him was, ‘I love you, honey, I’ll be with you when you get up from your nap,’ ” Synn said. “We were feeding him oranges and strawberries. He was so peaceful. He said, ‘Yay!’ He had the most pure and sweetest look on his face.”
With his mix of magic tricks, pranks, and gross-out humor, Szeles carved out a unique lane for himself in the Eighties and Nineties. He was a frequent guest on Late Night With David Letterman, helmed several comedy specials, and was a major Vegas headliner for over a decade.
Props were a signature of the Amazing Johnathan’s performances. During a 1997 appearance on Letterman, he claimed he had a compulsion to run naked and proceeded to drink glass cleaner. “This prevents me from streaking,” he quipped. Later, he appeared to remove his eyeball with a power drill and bat the orb around with his tongue. At one point, he asked the host if he liked birds, manifested one beneath a handkerchief, and then smashed it into feathery death with his palm. The capper was slicing a knife through his bloody forearm. “It’s a fake blade, it’s fake!” Szeles admonished the shocked audience.
Born Sept. 9, 1958, in Detroit, Szeles moved to California in the Seventies where he began practicing magic on the streets of San Francisco. By the late Eighties and into the Nineties, his star had risen and he was seemingly all over TV, appearing on the late-night circuit and on standup specials like Just for Laughs and An Evening at the Improv.
In 1991, he hosted the series Ruckus, a Beat the Clock-type game show, while continuing to do standup and cement his reputation not just as a comic but as a magician. He became friends with Criss Angel, a fellow Vegas performer, and made cameos on Angel’s TV illusions series Mindfreak. In a tweet, Angel remembered Szeles, who was diagnosed with a heart condition in 2007, as “a pioneer who paved the road for comedy magicians in so many ways.”
But for all Szeles’ gore humor — he liked to call himself the “Freddy Krueger of Comedy” — the Amazing Johnathan’s most shocking moment came onstage in 2014, when he revealed to an audience in Las Vegas that he had just one year left to live. “The greatest time of my entire life has been here. I’ve made millions of dollars, I have two beautiful houses, and…,” he said, with a long pause, “everything came crashing down when I was told I had a year to live.” While the audience laughs awkwardly, he chastises them that it’s not a joke.
“My heart is failing — my wife would’ve said it failed long ago — but it is actually failing for real,” he said, announcing his retirement. “I can’t do shows anymore because my legs lock up and my hands lock up, and that’s kind of shitty for a magician.”
Szeles, however, lived well past that year and actually returned to performing in 2017. In 2019, he was the subject of a documentary, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, directed by Ben Berman, which examined his career, a possible comeback, and his illness — yet it also openly wondered whether Szeles, who was using meth during filming, had actually faked his terminal diagnosis.
Berman suggests that possibility to his subject during a particularly tense scene. “Are you disappointed I’m not dying in your time frame?” Szeles asks, before walking out on the interview.
In paying tribute to Szeles, Berman wrote on Instagram, “The way Johnathan lived, I respect immensely. He lived on his own terms… He really was so many things. Creator, destroyer, charmer, fighter, fucking weirdo, next level artist, and of course a BRILLIANT COMEDIAN. He really made things, and broke them (intentionally), and made more things. The dude shot from the hip, worked from instinct, and it worked! He did things wrong, and I’m inspired by that. He shook it up like we all should.”
“Don’t feel sorry for me, because I’ve had the best most incredible life that you could have,” the Amazing Johnathan said after tearfully revealing his diagnosis onstage in 2014. “Everything I ever wanted, I got — there’s a lot to be said for devil worship.”