James Randi
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Credit: Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival

James 'The Amazing' Randi, magician and noted paranormal skeptic, dies at 92

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Oct 21, 2020, 10:35 PM EDT (Updated)

James Randi, the internationally acclaimed stage magician and escapologist formerly known as "The Amazing Randi," before going on to become a noted paranormal debunker and co-founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, has died. He was 92. 

The James Randi Foundation announced the news in a tweet on Tuesday, stating he passed from "age-related causes." 

Born Randall James Zwinge in 1928 in Toronto, Canada, Randi dropped out of school as a teenager to join a carnival roadshow where he worked as a conjurer, in addition to his work as a mentalist at local night clubs. He began a career as a magician in 1946, and made a name for himself as an escape artist, breaking free from jail cells, safes, and even a submerged coffin on the Today show in 1956 — a feat that was said to have broken even Houdini's record at the same stunt. 

Randi soon became a regular guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, as well as on the kids show Wonderama, before going on to host his own TV show, The Amazing Randi Show from 1967 to 1968. He also toured and made several stage appearances during this time, including joining rock star Alice Cooper on his "Billion Dollar Babies" tour, for which Randi built several props — including the on-stage guillotine — and performed on stage, both as a mad dentist and Alice's executioner. In 1976, he performed a special for Canadian TV in which he escaped from a straightjacket while suspended upside down over Niagara Falls. 

However, Randi's time as a magician was also marked by his upfront honesty about the fact that the tricks and illusions he performed had nothing to do with actual magic or the paranormal, but rather were products of misdirection and sleight of hand. In 1964, while appearing on a radio show, he offered $1,000 to anyone who could show scientific evidence of supernatural powers, an amount he would later up to $10,000. In 1976, he co-founded the Committee of Skeptical Inquiry — formerly known as the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) — along with astronomer Carl Sagan, author Isaac Asimov, and a few others. The aim of the organization was to promote scientific inquiry and the use of reason while examining any claims of the extraordinary. 

Randi would build on this by kicking off a second career as a professional paranormal investigator. He notedly went after illusionist Uri Geller, even challenging him in person on an episode of the Tonight Show. He also famously exposed religious televangelist Peter Popoff's fraudulent methods on Carson's show as well. 

In 1996, he founded the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), a non-profit dedicated to promoting critical thinking and investigating claims of the paranormal, which would later launch the "One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge," for anyone who could demonstrably prove they have paranormal abilities under the agreed-upon scientific testing conditions. While over 1000 people applied over the years, no one ever won it. The challenge was terminated in 2015 when Randi retired at age 87. 

Following his retirement, Randi appeared on episodes of entertainers Penn & Teller's Showtime documentary series, Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, in which they would debunk a common misconception or debate a controversial topic on each episode. 

Today, Jillette tweeted his sadness about Randi's passing: "Goodbye to the truly Amazing James Randi, our inspiration, mentor, and dear friend. We will love you forever." 

Randi was also the subject of a 2014 PBS documentary titled An Honest Liar.

He is survived by his husband Deyvi Peña. 

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