Some years ago, late one night in the bar of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago, [Jay] was performing magic with a deck of cards. Also present was a friend of Mamet and Mosher’s named Christ Nogulich, the director of food and beverage at the hotel. After twenty minutes of disbelief-suspending manipulations, Jay spread the deck face up on the bar counter and asked Nogulich to concentrate on a specific card but not to reveal it. Jay then assembled the deck face down, shuffled, cut it into two piles, and asked Nogulich to point to one of the piles and name his card. “Three of clubs,” Nogulich said, and he was then instructed to turn over the top card. He turned over the three of clubs. Mosher, in what could be interpreted as a passive-aggressive act, quietly announced, “Ricky, you know, I also concentrated on a card.” After an interval of silence, Jay said, “That’s interesting, Gregory, but I only do this for one person at a time.” Mosher persisted: “Well, Ricky, I really was thinking of a card.” Jay paused, frowned, stared at Mosher, and said, “This is a distinct change of procedure.” A longer pause. “All right—what was the card?” “Two of spades.” Jay nodded, and gestured toward the other pile, and Mosher turned over its top card. The deuce of spades. A small riot ensued.
Jay prefers not to discuss the details of his childhood. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, on an unspecified date, probably in 1948, to a middle-class Jewish family, and grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He has never spoken publicly about his parents, with the exception of a single anecdote: "My father oiled his hair with Brylcreem and brushed his teeth with Colgate," he recalled. “He kept his toothpaste in the Medicine cabinet and the Brylcreem in a closet about a foot away. Once, when I was ten, I switched the tubes. All you need to know about my father is that after he brushed his teeth with Brylcreem he put the toothpaste in his hair.” His grandfather, Max Katz, was a certified public accountant and amateur Magician who introduced Jay to magic.
Jay first performed in public at the age of four, in 1953, when he appeared on the television program "Time For Pets". He is most likely the youngest Magician to perform a full magic act on TV, the first Magician to ever play comedy clubs, and probably the first Magician to open for a rock and roll band. At New York's The Electric Circus in the 1960s, he performed on a bill between Ike and Tina Turner and Timothy Leary, who lectured about LSD.
As an expert on magic, gambling, con games and unusual entertainment, Jay has long been a go-to consultant on Hollywood projects, beginning with his work on Francis Ford Coppola's production of Caleb Deschanel's The Escape Artist. Other early work included teaching Robert Redford how to manipulate coins for The Natural, and working with Douglas Trumbull on his groundbreaking Showscan project, New Magic (1983).
In the early 1990s, Jay and Michael Weber created a firm, Deceptive Practices, providing "Arcane Knowledge on a Need-to-Know Basis" to film, television and stage productions. By offering both vast historical expertise and creative invention, they have been able to provide surprisingly practical solutions to real production challenges. Among many accomplishments, they designed the wheelchair that "magically" hid Gary Sinise's legs in Forrest Gump, as well as the glass that "drinks itself" used by the gorilla in Congo. For the Broadway production of "Angels in America, part 2: Perestroika", they designed an illusion "in which a man climbs to the top of a ladder of light and vanishes in midair."
Jay has also lectured at Harvard University, USC, the Grolier Club, the Hammer Museum, Getty Center, and Town Hall Theatre in New York City. In 1999 he guest-curated an exhibit at the Harvard Theater Collection entitled "The Imagery of Illusion: Nineteenth Century Magic and Deception."
Jay joined the cast of the HBO western drama Deadwood as a recurrent character and Writer for the first season in 2004, playing card sharp Eddie Sawyer. He wrote the episode "Jewel's Boot Is Made for Walking". He left the series at the end of the first season.
He also performed on the 2005 BBC Radio adaptation of David Mamet's "Faustus."
He performed "The Fiddler" with Richard Greene on Hal Willner's sea shanty-compilation Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys (2006), as well as "The Chantey of Noah and his Ark (Old School Song)" on its follow-up Son of Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys (2013).
Ricky Jay has contributed to several projects in the music world. Most notably the 2007 Sony release "Ricky Jay Plays Poker," a box set containing a CD of poker-related songs (by Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, Townes Van Zandt, Patsy Cline, Lorne Greene, Howard Da Silva, O.V. Wright, and several others), a DVD featuring Ricky Jay discussing and performing notable feats of card table deception, and a box of Ricky Jay playing cards.
He has loaned parts of his collection for an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled “Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s Drawings From the Collection of Ricky Jay.” through April 11, 2016