If you only see one documentary this year about an extraordinary magician versus shifty charlatans, An Honest Liar is the film for you. Intrigue! Excitement! Unexpected drama! Opening in theatres on March 6th and around the country thereafter. Fandor co-founder Jonathan Marlow sat down with subject James Randi, artist Jose Alvarez and filmmaker Tyler Measom last year to discuss this remarkable documentary.
Jonathan Marlow: I believe that the first time I became aware of your work was seeing you on The Tonight Show.
James Randi: [Johnny] Carson became a pretty good friend of mine. He was very much in sympathy with (and in accord with) what we did at the JREF, the James Randi Educational Foundation. I had a couple of occasions when I would leave after the taping. The taping was always done several hours earlier in the afternoon, you see. The editing could be done, if necessary, and any touching-up could be completed. On three occasions, right outside the exit door to the talent section, I would find a white Corvette sitting there with Johnny Carson in it. As soon as he would see me coming, the windows would come down. He’d fan out all the cigarette smoke. He was a very heavy smoker…
Marlow: He was a chain-smoker, as I understand it.
Randi: Oh, yes. He was very considerate with me in that way. We’d sit there and we’d talk about certain tricks or whatever. Some secrets of the trade. He would often give me a little bit of sleight-of-hand on something. He was a very amiable gentleman. Very friendly. Though he never did any of the magic that he had mastered on the show itself.
Marlow: Why do you think that is?
Randi: Well, because he wasn’t one of the magicians. He would rather have the magicians do their bit…
Marlow: …have the masters come in.
Randi: Yes, exactly.
Marlow: How did that relationship first occur? How did you get booked on The Tonight Show initially?
Randi: A fellow named Bob Bolce just wrote me out-of-the-blue. ‘How would you like to be on the Johnny Carson show?’ I thought about that for a long time. Like seven to eight seconds! And then decided that I would like to do that. He invited me into Hollywood and we hit it off right away. He introduced me to Carson and the funny thing with Carson was that I made him break a rule. One of his rules was he did not want to meet any of the artists before actually being on camera. In other words, they would go to their dressing rooms and such and he would be invisible. And then he would show up on the set and then, when they pulled the curtain, that was the first time that he would meet them. He did not want to meet any of them in advance. But with me he made an exception. I don’t know whether he did that with other people. I would always hear, four or five minutes before walking on camera, a knock at the door. I would say, ‘Oh, it must be him.’ I’d go there and he’d say, ‘Listen, just a minute. What do you want me to talk about tonight? Anything I can plug for you?’ He was always trying to be very considerate and helpful that way. I don’t know whether he did that with other people. I hope that he did, of course. When they’d open the door to leave and go on camera, I’d see staff standing around saying, ‘What is he doing? He never does this.’ It was always a bit of a mystery.
Marlow: Somewhat extraordinary, given that it was the most consistently-watched late-night television program at the time, to give you a platform to debunk Uri Geller.
Randi: I’m not debunking. We’ll say, ‘Examination.’
Marlow: I was mostly familiar with his charlatanism through the popular press. And then, of course, your book, which made very clear what he was up to was glorified parlor tricks. Why is it that you think that, on average, individuals are inclined to want to believe things that they don’t really understand?
Randi: They’re looking for magic. Right now… I say I’m a magician. I’m not a magician. I’m a conjurer. I am a person who approximates the effect of a magician. If I were a magician, that is what I would do. But I’m not really using magic. That is the point that a lot of people don’t get. Legitimate magicians don’t make claims to having supernatural powers. They walk out there and they say, ‘I’m going to fool you. Here we go.’ And they fool you. If they have any talent at all, that is! They fulfill their promise though they’re being very honest with you all the way through. This is a conjuring trick. This is an illusion that you’re seeing. They do it for purposes of entertainment. When you see an actor on stage doing Hamlet, for example, you see the blonde wig and the costume and the whole thing. You accept that all. We hope that the performance is good. You enjoy it. You applaud at the end and they bring the cast on. The last person to come up, of course, is the character Hamlet. Comes forward, takes off the blonde wig. If he were to stop at that point and say, ‘Now, I have some news for you. I really am the Prince of Denmark,’ they would be booing. ‘Get out of here!’ They’d tear the theater up. They’d be insulted. But they are not insulted when the astrologists say, ‘By charting these stars in the sky and the way the planets move among them, I’m able to tell you your future and the dates on which certain things will occur.’ They don’t think that is preposterous at all! That is a ridiculous scenario! That the whole Universe was set up with the moving planets, billions of years ago, in order for that configuration would say what’s going to happen in your life because you were born on that day, at that geographical point. Come on!
Randi: Of course. It is so absurd on so many levels and in so many degrees that you have to wonder, ‘How could anyone possibly believe that?’ The reason they believe it is, they’re looking for some magic someplace and they tend to accept the wins when they astrologer says, ‘Something is going to happen to you on July 27th’ and something does happen. It may be an erupting tooth or… Whatever. ‘Oh! You see? They knew.’ They accept the positive evidence and they reject all of the rest of the evidence as insignificant.
Marlow: Sounds like politics.
Randi: Yes. Very good! You’ve studied this, I can see.
Marlow: If I were a card-carrying person that carried cards, I am a card-carrying skeptic. So yes, this is something that is of great importance.
Randi: I believe that it is. A skeptical attitude. But not an attitude which says, ‘Life is just a bunch of crap. What’s the point in living the life?’ Come on. Be optimistic in everything. That is what makes your life grand! I don’t want to be a cynic. I want to be a skeptic. And there is a vast difference.
Marlow: An immense difference. In a way, by coming back to San Francisco, you’re returning to the scene of what was able to happen with Peter Popoff, the discovery of how that trickery was pulled off. Yet, what really was fundamental to me is your work is inverting the process of discovery, both with the creation of Carlos and also with the Project Alpha, where you’re taking people who should know better…
Marlow: To really open up to what is actually happening.
Randi: Perhaps unkindly at that point but it had to be done to demonstrate. All the psychics will say, ‘Well, I’ve passed scientific tests in laboratories. That proves it right there, you see.’ What we did is we went to a scientific laboratory and we laid all of this information on them and they accepted. And they built it up over a period of years. It was just incredible how much they fell for it. They fell right into the sinkhole.
Marlow: For three years?
Randi: Yes. We were very kind to Philips the gentleman who fell for it and his lab, as such. We were very considerate, very compassionate because we said in advance, ‘This is the rules, gentlemen.’….We said we will never let Philips make a statement saying, ‘You are psychics,’ and he’s proven it. What we’ll do is, we’ll interrupt it before that point and make sure that he doesn’t say it. When he issued the report, we have copies of the report before and after. Before he wrote it up, first of all saying, ‘Oh, yes, definitely. These are psychics.’ The second version I ordered is apparently or perhaps. So many of those words were dropped into the report that all the parapsychologists sitting there waiting for a positive report on somebody who’d been found to really be psychic, they were all saying, ‘Come on, you didn’t come to any conclusion.’ Well, they did. What they were really saying was, ‘We were fooled. We were hornswoggled. We were unwise to have done that.’
Marlow: How did you allow this gentleman [Tyler Measom, director of An Honest Liar] to become a part of your life for a little while?
Randi: Never saw him before in my life. [Laughs.]
Tyler Measom: I just started filming through the windows.
Randi: Exactly. He stepped forth and said, ‘I think this is a good subject to handle in this respect.’ I had to think about it for a long time. Like four or five seconds.
Randi: Yes, exactly.
Marlow: You seem to be very decisive.
Randi: That is my decision… It is five to six seconds, actually.
Measom: It is a little slower than that.
Marlow: You are allowing cameras into your life and that is a very different thing.
Randi: I had to know something about these fellows before I let them in. They satisfied me as to their intents.
Measom: We were vetted. We were vetted before we got to you.
Marlow: Your public persona up until the last few years has been relatively private. You haven’t talked a lot about your private life. In this documentary, you are allowing people inside your life. Inside in a way that you might not have been comfortable with five years ago…
Randi: Yes. Not only that. Knowing that this film is going to come out, I got on the Internet and I laid it out to folks because it was time that I said something. All of my friends knew about my personal life. Everybody close to me knew. And anyone who asked, they were given the direct answer: ‘Yes,’ right there. No question to that and no dodging around the bush or anything.
Marlow: Very true.
Randi: I wasn’t advertising the fact. I also didn’t tell people I was right handed…
Marlow: It is at this point in the conversation where we can reveal that the big shock in the documentary is that you are Canadian.
Measom: That is true. There you go!
Marlow: How many of the screenings have you attended to this point? You’ll be there tonight?
Jose Alvarez: I dodged Toronto, but Tribeca…
Marlow: How is it, at this stage, to go back and look at the ‘Carlos’ footage?
Randi: I have seen it a number of times. But seeing it on the big screen… seeing it so well handled and refined, too… Some of the versions, they got, but they were not the scratchy old versions that I had. I actually at one time had a reel-to-reel video tape, can you believe that? Half-inch video tapes.
Marlow: How was the experience in Australia during that period when you were presenting this ruse? Going from creating this character to then going to Australia and presenting. That was a real thing.
Randi: That was quite a plan. We spent weeks on it.
Alvarez: It was quite revealing. People’s desire to follow a charismatic teacher like that…
Randi: We hadn’t had the experience before. I hadn’t experienced so many people going through this sort of thing but I wanted him to see it from the beginning. To see how people would just clamor for such a thing and accept it, widely.
Marlow: It seems like a universal trait.
Randi: Oh, yes. It does. People are looking for magic. And that is the catch-phrase here. They want some sort of advantage and they believe that it is there. And the media are largely to blame for that because the media will promote these things. You know very well that their editor is sitting there saying, ‘Here’s a piece of crap.’ This, they’ll believe, because it has the name so and so connected with it. Or it happened in Seattle. Or whatever. And they will promote that kind of thing. In some cases, that is just shameless and it is irresponsible. In my next book, the eleventh, I am going to trounce the media rather thoroughly. Your name won’t be mentioned.
Marlow: I appreciate that. I am a fake media person, after all…
Randi: There you go.
Marlow: It seems interesting, throughout your career, taking these individuals through that ride as a showman. To make it obvious to them how easy it is even for people who should basically be more questioning, be more concerned…
Marlow: Out of the footage (which I haven’t seen since it first aired). In retrospect, it seems ridiculously preposterous. It did not matter how you would present these things because the belief—the desire to believe these things—is so strong. Some of the footage that is pulled together in the documentary of Geller, now, and his reinvention of his career… even Popoff and his wife in. I suppose, on a certain level, it is disheartening to see that there’s really no way to put an end to it.
Randi: Yes. And the point is that I think there should be some official governmental interference of this kind of thing. Senator Claude Pepper in Florida was ready to issue a bill to the Congress saying, ‘Let’s stop this faith healing nonsense that is going on.’
Marlow: I had not seen your psychic surgery recreations before. I guess there is nothing new.
Randi: No, there really isn’t…
Marlow: They just keep revisiting certain things that have been around for ages…
Randi: Not only that, the more that I look into the history of it, I find that these things were done well before I came around. Half-a-century before I came along. They were still popular at that point.
Marlow: I have yet to see a resurgence of spirit photography, admittedly.
Randi: Photography is no longer the mystery that it used to be. Kids can do this in their darkrooms [or on their computers] now.
Marlow: There is a variation on the spirit photography: those horrible television shows and the ghost hunters. They’re still pretending that they see spirits and hear noises. It’s just moved to a different medium. Same thing.
Randi: Exactly, but now what they do is they either use infrared film or they just tint it green in order to make it look like it was infrared film. You see people, they go to old, creaky houses. Never new houses. The old creaky houses that make strange noises at night and where the electricity doesn’t quite work. Things creak and pop and make pinging noises on the windows and whatnot. That is where they go. This is where things are spooky. They would never go into a brand new house that may have been occupied by a murderer or something in the past, no, because that doesn’t creak properly. What they do is they fuss around in the dark and it’s, ‘Ah, oh, did you hear that?’ They have bad recording equipment because one particular model of Panasonic used to pick-up radio signals inadvertently. It didn’t have good filters in it. Now they do, of course. This is a reel to reel and they paid fortunes to get those because that’s where the spirits speak, you see. What they hear is a soap commercial or something and they misinterpret it altogether from Lever Brothers doing something (which is a perfectly a legitimate business). They reinterpret it and misinterpret it and they yell at one another, ‘Did you hear that?’ Then there’s a scream, something drops to the floor, everybody goes home. And that is the end of the show.
Marlow: I think that it comes up in the interview that you have in the film with Uri Geller where he’s saying, ‘It isn’t as if this has been productive. Now people are just as superstitious as they’ve always been.’ I don’t know if that’s true. Do you feel that it’s true? Amongst the work of the Skeptic Society and your foundation and others, there is clearly an active effort to educate people of their inclination towards superstition.
Randi: They try to educate you. But you’ve got to do it gently. You can’t say, ‘You’re really stupid to believe in this sort of thing.’ It’s not going to work very well. What you’ve got to do is point them in the direction and you give them a little bit of a push and they say, ‘Oh, wow, I never saw that before.’ That is when they start to think. I guess I’ve got a certain knack for being able to do that. But then I understand thoroughly how the conjuring trade is done, psychologically and whatnot. A very good… ‘What have I got here? I must have something in my pocket. Yes, I do,’ he said, pulling a pen out of his pocket. This is a very simple thing. There’s nothing mysterious about it. It is a bit of sleight of hand but I did so many things in there automatically. I don’t have to think about them. I did this kind of a thing and I looked from here to here and then I moved my hat like that as if I were just adjusting it and… I’ve got it here and I can drop it in my lap. I know at this table, it is risky but I drop it in my lap and I can pick it up later on. As a matter of fact, I have dropped it in my lap. I do these things all automatically. And when they begin to understand just a few things about that, they say, ‘Wow.’ If you teach them to do a small thing all by themselves, some little sleight-of-hand thing or a little bit of misdirection. Now, a lot of it is done by my voice and by the way I turn my head and just move. I do that. I don’t think about it. That’s hardwired in here automatically.
Marlow: From years of practice.
Randi: That is right. And self denial.
Marlow: Self denial. I guess I was trying to get at this earlier. In these screenings that you’ve been at and the one that’ll happen tonight, how is the audience reception?
Measom: It is really great. [Laughs.]
Randi: It is.
Marlow: That must be rewarding.
Randi: It is more than rewarding. It is such a surprise! I expected there would be a good reaction, no question of that. When I look down into the front row of the audience (as I usually do come on stage near the close of the film), I look down at their eyes and I see tears in people’s eyes. People are genuinely empathetic towards us. They’re so affected by it. And they just stand there and they shake their heads and say, ‘That was wonderful.’ And they shake my hand. We cannot get the theater empty after that. [Laughs.] We have to lead them to the door.
Measom: Ushers have to come in and say, ‘Enough, people!’
Randi: That’s right.
Measom: ‘Time to go home.’ We’ve been very lucky.
Randi: We’ll talk outside, won’t we? The reaction is uniformly good. I have not had one person come to me, ‘Serves you right Randi, so and so.’ Nothing like that at all. Not at all. Of course, it may just be that people who feel that way don’t come to me. I see that audience just…
Marlow: No one is coming to you and saying, ‘Million dollar challenge, I could do it.’
Randi: I get a few questions about that. ‘What about so and so?’ They bring up some obscure psychic that I may or may not have heard of (because the world is full of them, as you well know). I would just say, simply, ‘You’ll have to see my new book.’ That’s the only way I think I can say it because I try to handle these people in the new book.
Marlow: This history of people taking advantage of other people, basically pulling money from really emotionally desperate individuals… The Peter Popoff footage, in particular, is very disheartening and very alarming.
Randi: It is such a cruel thing, such a very cruel thing. Because we see those people. My goodness, I remember coming out of one CBS taping in New York, right on 59th Street, I recall, at some studio there, and I was invited to go along. They assigned a cameraman to me. He followed me through the whole procedure. It was W.V. Grant, in that case. He’s another one of these rascals. He was up on stage there and he took a cane away from a lady. She had two canes. We interviewed her briefly as she went on stage. We got her before she went up on stage. She had two canes but she could obviously walk. It was difficult but she had trouble with balance and such. We asked her, ‘What are you here for?’ ‘Oh, Reverend Grant is going to be healing. There is no question if he does that. I’ve seen him do this and I’ve sent him a lot of money over the years and such.’ We thought, this is good. We’ll see what happens when she gets up on stage. On stage, he took her canes away and threw them over to one side. Then he said, ‘Walk forward. Jesus is with you. Walk forward.’ She stumbled forward and she just fell over. She was grabbed by the two attendants who were there who steadied her up. Grant just said, ‘Steady, steady, steady. Jesus is with you.’ She took a couple more steps and then she asked for her canes back. [Laughs.] She left and we walked over to interview her. She was with the canes, walking exactly the same way again, and I said, ‘You’re walking with your canes again.’ She says, ‘Oh, yes, but I’ve been healed.’ I said, ‘But you still have the canes and you don’t appear very steady to me. I’m sorry. I hate to say this to you but it doesn’t look like you’ve been healed.’ She said, ‘Oh, yes, I have been healed.’ She looked grimly at me as if to say, ‘Don’t deny me this delight.’ I can understand that. She came a long way to be there.
Measom: She paid a lot.
Randi: Luckily, the cameraman stayed on her back. She turned around at a certain point and she said, ‘And I still believe fiercely,’ and put her cane down and she walked off. Now, they did not use that in the edited version because it was too cruel to her. Really, too cruel to her. I was hoping that they would not use it (because they did film it). That is the way people are. And if she is still alive today, I’ll bet she’s still sending him money.
Marlow: There is a moment in the documentary, a reference to a business card. You had a pseudonym.
Randi: Yes, Adam Jirsen.
Marlow: Which is an anagram.
Randi: James Randi, switched around.
Marlow: You were there as a documentary filmmaker. Most of the interview footage in the documentary is dealing with using radio frequency to pick up on the trick. Where were you in the context of this thing? This was at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.
Randi: I was there in disguise. I had the red dyed beard and the red wig as well. As an auragramist! [Laughs.] I just made up that card just to have something to hand out. Of course, I was accepted immediately. The only problem was, I almost starved to death during those three days because I couldn’t eat. I had very bad dentures. A friend of mine who makes dentures made me the ugliest teeth that you ever seen in your life. People would just turn away from me when they looked at me. They were dreadful! I was an objectionable looking character and people didn’t want to even be with me. But I was always full of wonder over everything that was being said around me. I actually walked in on the Alpha Boys. The two Alpha kids were sitting there doing their wonders for a small crowd.
Marlow: Were you recording then, from inside? What was your activity on the floor?
Randi: I was just there. I wanted to show that I could be among them and they wouldn’t spot me.
Randi: They knew that James Randi was around doing this but they didn’t know this was James Randi. This was Adam Jirsen, you see. I actually went on stage when Uri Geller was autographing books and I have the book at home and it says ‘To Adam from Uri.’ He signed it with a flourish and he looked at me very strangely as he was handing the book back. He didn’t quite let me have it. He said, ‘Where are you from?’ I said, ‘From New Jersey.’ I pulled the book out of his hand and walked away. I didn’t look over my shoulder. That might have been a victory for him.
Marlow: This Adam character… you have used him on several occasions?
Randi: No, not a great deal. I used it a couple of times for private readings on Second Avenue in New York City, for example, where many psychics wind-up there in the little stores. I did it for one film crew, quite some years ago. I was Adam Jirsen and I had my whole fortune told and the whole business. Then I just reached up as, and they said, ‘What do you think of this?’ I said, ‘I think it is a pile of bullshit. I am not so and so, I didn’t do this. You’re absolutely wrong about my age and the country I come from.’
Marlow: A cold reading (and a poor one at that)?
Randi: Yes, exactly. I simply reached up, took the wig off and the glasses….
Marlow: ‘Oh, Randi.’
Randi: I did everything but pull the contact lenses out. They just sat there and they said, ‘But that’s not fair.’ ‘Oh yes, it is! You’re lying to these people. You’re making up stories, so they’re going to believe. It is perfectly fair to do exactly that.
Marlow: There are people who say that when Uri Geller was on the Tonight Show and they prepared everything in the way that you had suggested, he wasn’t able to do his trick correctly…
Randi: Let me interrupt you there.
Marlow: Of course. You should.
Randi: I didn’t suggest that they prepare them. What I did was suggest that they don’t let him prepare. His assistant would always get to them in advance and fracture them as he wanted them perhaps on one end of the row. He could do that very easily. Backstage at the Tonight Show when they were just about to tape it, just chaos, of course, you see the prop door is open and the stuff is laying right there. He was always prepared for them. I don’t know because I wasn’t there. The point is that he was allowed to look at them. ‘Oh no, no. We can’t touch the props.’ They were taped down, you see. Then, when they put them on camera, they were untapped, just laying there. When Geller walked in from backstage, he knew he was…
Marlow: He wasn’t going to be able to do it.
Randi: He knew that he couldn’t do a thing. And he said, from the very beginning, ‘I’m feeling very nervous tonight.’ You bet he was feeling very nervous tonight!
Marlow: It was interesting to see that he immediately went on these other programs…
Randi: The next Saturday he was on Merv Griffin… Same thing. Carrying on.
Marlow: As a person’s ‘life’s work’ goes, you could have easily had a career in trickery. You could have made money from manipulating perception. You could have stayed securely as a performer. But the decision to create the foundation and your efforts to expose these frauds is extraordinarily important.
Randi: That is really my life’s work. Having created the foundation and the background and the staff and going to all these conferences. We hold this big conference in Las Vegas every year that we call TAM, ‘The Amazing Meeting.’ That helps us a great deal. It is one of our major funding efforts for the foundation, as a matter of fact.
Marlow: How many employees are with the foundation?
Randi: That is very hard to say because many of them are only part time…
Marlow: …and people who contribute to the website.
Randi: …and contribute their talents. We pick up the phone, daily.
Marlow: Because you cannot possibly be everywhere.
Randi: No. I’ve tried being everywhere. It doesn’t work.
Marlow: It’s not easy.
Marlow: What I was trying to get at is that it makes sense that people could go through this process of trickery. But what I find particularly interesting is when audience members say, ‘What you don’t understand is that you have these powers.’
Randi: What they’re saying is, ‘I’m not stupid.’ Maybe you are! Think about it for a moment. You’re just ignorant. Not stupid, necessarily. You can have very good knowledge of how the world works when you know about it. When you have the information, you would come to the right conclusions. But they don’t want to come to that conclusion. They will sit there and they’ll go, ‘Mm, hmm. Mm, hmm.’ I’ve had them do this kind of thing when you’re telling them the facts of what has happened and they’ll just go, ‘Mm, hmm. Mm, hmm. I know what went on. I know that I was healed because he touched my knee. I know that, Mr. Randi.’
Alvarez: I think that there is an element of need.
Randi: Oh, yes.
Alvarez: They have decided to believe for a particular vulnerability (whatever that might be) and that overrides their critical thinking. It fulfills a desire. It fulfills a need. So, therefore they shoot down… Because, at that moment, they’re vulnerable. Rather than saying that they have a lack of capacity for that, I think it is more of a profound personal need.
Randi: Of course, throwing God into it, too. They always throw God into it. And people hearing the word God…
Marlow: How can you question that?
Randi: How could you possibly question that?
Marlow: Because then you are getting to the very fundamentals of belief.
Randi: Yes. And we don’t want to get too close to that.
Marlow: I imagine this was very difficult for you. There’s footage from 60 Minutes or something where you’re cooking and you see in the background, and being in the foreground of the screen must have been difficult.
Alvarez: It was difficult. But I just felt that it was necessary. I feel that if you are going to change things, you need to talk. I felt that was what I needed to do. I am not particularly public.
Marlow: But you are also an artist.
Alvarez: The work is what is out there. Not me. In this case, I felt that it was very necessary to be as ‘out there’ as I can be. I feel that in the reaction of people when they said, ‘You are changing the world and this is the way to do it.’
Randi: One thing I might say is (as I usually say after we show the film), I think there is one phrase I almost always throw in there. When people come to you and they say, ‘You’ve made a big change in my life,’ you cannot buy that. When you hear someone say that and they’ve got tears in their eyes and they shake your hand and they look you straight in the eye, you know that you’ve done the job. With this one person, at least (and for many other people as well), I feel fulfilled at that moment. That’s one thing this film has done for me. It has allowed me to feel very fulfilled.