The Untold Truth Of The Amazing Randi

Onstage, The Amazing Randi tricked his audiences with incredible illusions. Offstage, he taught them how to avoid being deceived by con artists. James Randi is beloved as an accomplished magician, escape artist, skeptic, and investigator of claims of the supernatural.

Throughout his career, he matched many of the feats accomplished by his hero, Harry Houdini, debunked con artists claiming to have supernatural powers, and taught his vast audience about science, encouraging them to think rationally and challenge everything. With a famous flair for the dramatic, Randi made seeking the truth and exposing liars exciting. Above all, he unrelentingly pursued the truth. In a tribute by Skeptical Inquirer, fellow magicians Penn and Teller described him aptly: "Randi proved being a skeptic is fun."

Although James Randi died in October of 2020, he inspired a new generation of magicians and skeptics to continue his work and honor his legacy.

His first investigation landed him in jail

James Randi's career exposing frauds and scammers began when he was 15. As he recounted on Fresh Air, Randi visited a spiritualist church where the preacher claimed to be getting messages from the beyond. Each member of the congregation was asked to write down their problem and put it into a sealed envelope. The preacher would then hold an envelope and seem to magically know what was inside as if spirits were telling him.

In reality, he was using the "one-ahead gimmick" commonly used by magicians in mind-reading acts. Randi recognized it immediately and knew what the preacher was doing: when he appeared to be opening an envelope to check if he had gotten his prediction right, he was opening and reading about the next person. The preacher had already read all the information he claimed to be receiving from the beyond.

Randi saw how this con artist had fully duped the congregation, some even weeping. He was enraged to see them being lied to and taken advantage of, so he seized one of the envelopes out of the trash and shouted the truth to the congregation. The preacher's wife called the police, and officers came in and took Randi out. He was charged with disturbing a religious meeting. During those hours Randi spent in jail, he vowed that he would dedicate his life to exposing frauds like that preacher.

He planned some of his escapes years in advance

The Amazing Randi was adept at escaping from jail cells quietly and efficiently, so much so that often the police only knew he had escaped when they heard him honking the horn of his car from the parking lot. According to his apprentice, respected psychologist and scientific investigator Massimo Polidoro, speaking at CSICon in 2017, the planning for these prison breaks sometimes went back years.

If Randi were driving through a town at night and spotted a police station, he would often get out, ask an officer for directions, and then strike up a conversation about the jail. He would pose as an enthusiast, claiming that he collected different kinds of locks as a hobby, and bored policemen would often indulge him by showing him the types of locks on their cells. If they handed Randi a key, he would slip it into his pocket and press it into a plaster, making a perfect mold of it. Later, he would have his own copy made. Then, he would wait.

Several years later, when he was certain his conversation with the police officer had been forgotten, he would have a friend anonymously challenge him to escape from that same jail he had visited. While pretending to debate if he would accept the challenge, Randi would visit the cell and stash the key he had made inside. When the time came, he could simply unlock the door and walk out.

He exposed a fraud using packing peanuts

James Randi was famous not only for his skill as a magician, but also for his dedication to exposing those who used similar magic tricks to deceive people into believing that they genuinely had supernatural abilities. Over the years, Randi exposed many, many so-called mediums and psychics and the methods they used to scam innocent people out of their money, but only once did he use packing peanuts to expose the truth.

As described in "Pseudoscience: A Critical Encyclopedia," James Hydrick claimed that he could move objects with his mind. He had already acquired a following in Utah, but he became famous when he appeared to demonstrate his supernatural abilities on television in 1980, by turning the pages of a phone book and moving a pencil without touching them. 

Soon after, Randi challenged him to do it again, but this time there were packing peanuts scattered around the book. Hydrick couldn't do it. Then, Randi demonstrated the trick himself and revealed the truth: Hydrick had been subtly using his breath to move the objects, turning the pages and moving the pencil by blowing on it. In 1981, Hydrick confessed that Randi was right.

He and his husband first bonded over astronomy

From their first meeting, James Randi and his husband, José Alvarez, were always discussing new ideas. They first met purely by coincidence at the library, where a mutual interest in astronomy brought them together.

As described by Randi in the documentary "An Honest Liar," he was visiting the Fort Lauderdale public library when he spotted Alvarez looking at photographs of outer space and offered to tell him more about what he was looking at. Alvarez, who is an artist and was looking at the images for reference for his work, was intrigued. The two hit it off, and ended up discussing space all day. Randi offered to show Alvarez the Questar telescope he had at home, and the two arranged to meet again so Alvarez could look through it and see the moons of Jupiter. 

Later, Alvarez recounted a moment in which Saturn slipped out of view. When Randi explained to him that this was because the Earth had turned, Alvarez knew he wanted to get to know him.

He chose not to grossly outdo Houdini's records

Like James Randi, acclaimed magician Harry Houdini had a mission in life: to expose frauds that used magician's tricks to fool the public into believing they had supernatural powers. He served as a role model to Randi, not just as a skeptic and investigator of the paranormal, but in his career as a magician and escape artist as well.

Throughout his career, Randi was able to beat several of Houdini's records — but sometimes he took great care not to outdo Houdini too much, out of respect. In an interview with Skeptical Inquirer, Randi explained that Houdini had set many of his records, such as one where he was sealed in an underwater coffin, when he was in his late 40s. When Randi repeated them, he was about two decades younger, so he didn't consider it a fair comparison. In order to show respect for Houdini, Randi intentionally broke the record only by a very small margin.

He exposed spirit channelers with an elaborate hoax

In 1987, 60 Minutes Australia reached out to James Randi to ask for his help putting together a special, one that debunked the claim that mediums could have thousand-year-ol spirits living inside their bodies. As recounted by his husband José Alvarez, Randi replied that the only way to prove that spirit channeling could be faked was to fake it.

Soon, a mysterious spirit called Carlos was taking the Australian media by storm, apparently communicating with the outside world through the body of José Alvarez. All of the credentials that Alvarez presented were intentionally and obviously fake, and would fall apart if any journalist looked into them — but none did. The media and general public accepted Carlos as a genuine supernatural phenomenon, and many were even willing to give him their money. Through Carlos, Randi was able to prove that not only could the news be fooled by a fake medium, but it was also easy. Randi later stated in "An Honest Liar" that working with Alvarez on the hoax made the couple realize that they belonged together.

Randi was always sober

While enjoying a glass of wine might seem fundamentally different from engaging in magical thinking or believing in superstitions, James Randi avoided them all for the same reason. While he would sometimes enjoy a cup of coffee, he did not drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or misuse drugs, because he did not want to alter his perception of the world around him. In an interview for PBS, Randi explained that his goal was always to be as close to understanding the truth about the world as possible. To Randi, altering his mind intentionally was completely out of the question, saying, "[It can] fuzz the edges of my rationality, fuzz the edges of my reasoning powers."

Randi stated that in order to be as aware as possible, he needed to resist the temptation to indulge in mind-altering substances, saying, "That means giving up a lot of fantasies that might be comforting ... but I'm willing to give that up in order to live in an actually real world, as close as I can get to it."

Randi's MacArthur genius grant paid his legal fees

At the age of 58, James Randi was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant for his work as a science educator and for drawing attention to the dangers posed by faith healers and other scammers, who claimed to be able to heal the sick through supernatural means. While his investigations into claims of the supernatural won him the award, they also sent him into long legal battles with people who he had exposed as frauds. The MacArthur grant of $272,000 was mostly used to cover the legal fees incurred from being sued by one of his most famous cases: Uri Geller.

Randi's efforts to disprove Geller's claims were among his most famous investigations. In the 1970s, Geller became shockingly famous by doing a series of typical magic tricks on talk shows, including, most famously, the ability to bend spoons and keys with his mind. Randi knew it was possible to perform these tricks without the use of magic, and regularly refuted Geller's claims by doing the exact same stunts on the same TV shows Geller had been a guest on. 

On one occasion, Randi was able to help The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson expose the fraud by helping them to set up Geller's segment in a way that prevented him from using his usual tricks. In a PBS interview, Randi confirmed that he had to use the majority of the prize money that came with the honor to defend himself against libel suits from Geller.

His famous cane was a gift

In his later years, the exceedingly thin, 5-foot-5-inches tall James Randi was known for walking with the aid of a sleek black cane, topped with a silver skull for a handle. Fellow science educator and skeptic Dr. Harriet Hall remarked to Skeptical Inquirer that this increased his ever-growing resemblance to a wizard. The cane was given to him as a gift by CICAP, then called the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims on the Paranormal. Although Randi himself wasn't involved in creating CICAP, one of the organization's founding members is psychologist and scientific investigator Massimo Polidoro, who began his career as Randi's apprentice.

The Amazing Randi was always a showman with a flare for the dramatic, so a gothic cane would never have seemed out of place onstage or off, but his cane was functional as well as fashionable. By the 2000s, Randi had survived a heart attack, cancer, and surgery for aneurysms in his legs.

He was kicked out of Sunday school

James Randi's willingness to ask unpopular questions in order to get to the truth was a lifelong quest that began when he was around 11 years old. In an interview with Skeptical Inquirer editor Kendrick Frazier, Randi stated that although his parents didn't attend church, they sent him to Sunday school. On his first day, young Randi was confused by the details of what the instructor was reading from the Bible, including a discrepancy about the number of soldiers described in a battle. Randi raised his hand to ask how they knew it had really happened that way, and the instructor insisted that if it was written in the Bible, it had to be true. The young Randi wasn't satisfied and replied, "That sounds very unlikely."

Afterward, Randi was pulled aside and questioned about why he had been asking questions, to which Randi replied that he thought he was supposed to ask questions about the material in class. He was sent home with a note for his parents, which stated that he wouldn't be welcome back at Sunday school. The following week, Randi took the money he was supposed to put on the Sunday school collection plate and bought an ice cream sundae instead.

He took an overdose of homeopathic sleeping pills

At the beginning of his TED talk on the lack of scientific backing for homeopathy, and how pseudoscience is used to exploit people for money, James Randi took 32 pills — an entire bottle — of homeopathic sleeping pills. Although Randi took an entire bottle of homeopathic sleeping pills at the beginning of his talk regularly around the world for ten years, he never once seemed remotely tired while giving his lecture.

When creating a homeopathic medicine, a real chemical that has real physical effects on the human body is repeatedly diluted until there is none of it left, per the FDA. As Randi energetically explained, counterintuitively, and flying in the face of scientific consensus, proponents of homeopathy believe that the more diluted that original chemical is, the more powerful the healing properties. In an effort to explain just how extreme the proportions are, Randi stated: "It is exactly equivalent to taking one 325 milligram aspirin tablet, throwing it into the middle of Lake Tahoe ... waiting two years ... then when you get a headache, you take a sip of this water."

He chopped off Alice Cooper's head every night

In 1973, shock rocker Alice Cooper was looking to create his most over-the-top tour for his album "Billion Dollar Babies." On a panel at DragonCon in 2012, Cooper recalled that with the album's success, for the first time he could afford actual props for his act — and what he really wanted was illusions. James Randi described how he had been in a magic shop when the call came in; a rock star was looking for a magician to travel with his tour. Randi raised his hand to put his name in — but only if Cooper was willing to pay $100 to meet with him. Cooper's team agreed.

Not only did Randi help Cooper to design a stunt, he went on tour to help him execute it. Every night for three months, Cooper would appear to be decapitated by a guillotine live on stage. Randi, wearing a black hood, appeared onstage as the executioner to release the blade and chop off Cooper's head.

He awarded many flying pig statues, but never $1 million

Famously, James Randi offered a $1 million prize to anyone who could prove under scientific scrutiny that they had any supernatural abilities. The prize remained available for years, and more than a thousand people tried to win it, but genuine magic powers were never proven, and the money was never claimed.

While Randi was never able to give away his $1 million, he did give out many of his other prize: Pigasus Awards. These dubious honors were awarded to the "worst promoters of nonsense," or those whom the James Randi Educational Foundation thought were doing the most harm by promoting pseudoscience. "Winners" have included Dr. Oz, for being a physician who has promoted faith healing, various kinds of fake medicine, and people who claim to be able to contact the dead as genuine on his TV show. Andrew Wakefield also received the award for refusing to take back his claim that vaccines cause autism, even after his study was discredited over and over again by other researchers.

He spent 13 months in a full-body cast and then joined the carnival

As a child, James Randi saw a performance by a magician named Harry Blackstone. As described by Randi in "An Honest Liar," he was astonished by the things that Blackstone could do, and desperately wanted to understand how the illusions worked, and decided then and there that he would be a professional magician when he grew up. Before he was 20 years old, his dream would be realized — but only after a devastating injury.

At the age of 17, he was struck by a car while riding his bicycle. The injuries were so severe that the doctors feared he might never walk again. Randi spent over a year in a full body cast barely able to move. He used the time to read many books about magic. As soon as he was able to walk again, he joined a local carnival where he performed onstage as a magician.

Randi almost died during an escape

While The Amazing Randi was a highly accomplished escape artist, his stunts could be dangerous, and there was always a real risk that something could go wrong. As Randi recounted in "An Honest Liar," when he was 55, one of his escape acts almost proved fatal.

The act was not a new one. In fact, it was half a century old, and had been successfully performed by Harry Houdini. During the stunt, Randi was supposed to be sealed inside a can full of water. After the lid was put on, he began the process of escaping — but due to an unexpected malfunction, he could not. To further compound the situation, he heard a crackling noise from his own spine: Several of his vertebrae had chipped, leaving him in terrible pain. Rather than panicking, Randi stayed calm and waited for his assistants to realize something had gone wrong. Finally, he was pulled out of the water and taken to the hospital. 

At the end of the show, Randi was brought onstage on a stretcher — but he decided that soon he would retire from his career as an escape artist. While he still occasionally would escape from jail cells, he mostly dedicated himself to his scientific investigations.

He credits his high school teacher for his scientific knowledge

At the age of 17, James Randi dropped out of high school with only the final exams left before graduation. Despite this, Randi has credited his success in the field of science education to his high school science teacher.

In an interview with Skeptical Inquirer, Randi explained that although he devoted much of his life to using the scientific method to investigate claims of the paranormal, educating the public about science, and, on occasion, correcting scientists who were using improper methods in their studies, he never had a formal scientific education after he dropped out of high school. However, he stated that the science education in Canada at that time was very good. In particular, his physics teacher, Mr. Tovell, inspired his students to think about things critically. On one occasion, he presented the students with plans for a perpetual motion machine and challenged them to figure out why it didn't work. If they believed it would work, he told them they would build it together and see, an ethos that stuck with Randi.

He had many foster children

While The Amazing Randi's fans knew a lot about his professional career, both as a magician and as a skeptic, his family life was exceedingly private for most of his years. His fans did not know that Randi was gay until he decided to officially come out at the age of 81, when he had already been with his long-term partner José Alvarez for decades. Even less commonly known is that Randi was a foster parent, and supported many foster children throughout his life. In addition to supporting his own foster children, Randi also regularly donated to support foster children in the United States.

During an interview with People in 1986, an interviewer noticed photographs of children and teens from different ethnic backgrounds around Randi's home. Randi confirmed that they were his seven foster children. His oldest was Alexis, who, according to the Orlando Sentinel, Randi first spotted playing guitar on a street corner. Alexis lived with Randi throughout his teen years, and grew up to be a successful composer.

A spontaneous jailbreak jump-started his career

The Amazing Randi was a particularly skilled escape artist and often escaped from jail cells, but no escape had more impact on his career than one right at the beginning of his career — and it was completely unplanned.

As recounted by Randi in an interview with the Toronto Sun, when Randi was 21 or 22, he was working as a magician at a carnival near Quebec, when a pair of police officers who had seen his act stopped him and asked him if he would be able to escape from their handcuffs. Randi was good at getting out of handcuffs, so he agreed to let them cuff him and put him into the back of the squad car. When he exited the car on the other side, he already had the cuffs off. The two policemen were fascinated, and were even more shocked when they took him to the local jail: Randi was able to escape from the cell. This impromptu performance got the attention of the local papers and sparked a new phase in Randi's career as an escape artist.

Randi was accused of having real magic powers

James Randi had a favorite way of exposing frauds claiming to have supernatural abilities, which was to repeat their stunt exactly using standard magician's tricks, and then explain how it was done. Generally, this was an effective tactic for showing audiences that it was possible to achieve these results without the use of genuine magic — but occasionally, it backfired. On more than one occasion, people decided that Randi himself actually possessed supernatural powers.

As described in an article from CSICOP, Randi was duplicating the tricks performed by self-professed psychic Uri Geller to show how they could be done through trickery, when a professor from the University of Buffalo shouted that Randi was a fraud. Randi confirmed that he was tricking the audience, which was the performance's point. Then, to everyone's surprise, the professor clarified that he believed that Randi was actually using his own psychic abilities — and lying to everyone by pretending he was doing a magic trick. 

Similarly, as described in "Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?," on one occasion, a U.S. senator and hardcore believer in the paranormal, Claiborne Pell, insisted that while Randi believed he was doing magic tricks, he might actually have psychic abilities he was unaware of that made his act possible.

His husband had to flee his home country

James Randi's long-term partner and husband, artist José Alvarez, was arrested, jailed for six weeks, and put on trial for adopting a false identity during his escape from his home country, where he had been persecuted for his sexuality. As described in the documentary "An Honest Liar," Alvarez was born in Venezuela as Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga.

When he was 16 years old, Alvarez was attacked and threatened with a gun because people suspected he might be gay. He traveled to the United States, studied art, and met his future husband, Randi. He was convinced he needed to stay in America, but felt he had no way to do so legally. He was sold a fake identity of what he was told was a dead American named José Alvarez — but he had been lied to. The original José Alvarez was still very much alive.

Alvarez pleaded guilty to the charges and served six months house arrest, but was allowed to stay in the United States with his beloved partner Randi. They were together for the rest of Randi's life.

Strangers tried to get him to tell their future

While James Randi chose to use his skills to expose frauds and con artists, he always had the ability to fool people. If he did not have a strict moral compass, Randi could easily have been a highly successful scammer himself.

One of the first acts that The Amazing Randi, then called The Great Randall, did consisted of psychic and mind-reading tricks. Randi explained in "An Honest Liar" that, to entertain the audience during his early act, he would claim to have psychic abilities of various kinds. When Randi predicted the outcome of the World Series, it received a large amount of press coverage, and suddenly, people believed that Randi had genuine magical powers. 

Randi has described how he would be stopped by total strangers on the street who recognized him from the news. Often, they were desperate for answers, and asked him to predict their futures or help them with serious problems. Sometimes they even offered him money to answer their questions. As stated by fellow magician and skeptic Penn Jillette, "It's very much to the good of the world that when Randi felt that power, he backed away from it."

He did a series of investigations on a trip to China

In 1988, James Randi traveled to China with a group of fellow skeptics: science writer Kenrick Frazier, psychologist James Alcock, paranormal researcher Barry Karr, "father of secular humanism" Paul Kurtz, and the "Sherlock Holmes of UFOlogy" Philip Klass. There, the team investigated a series of supernatural claims that had gotten significant attention in the international media. In an interview with Skeptical Inquirer, Randi described it as "a great adventure."

Among the phenomena they investigated was a Qigong master, who claimed to be able to manipulate a woman lying on a table without touching her, so that she moved when he moved. However, when Randi and his fellow skeptics put up a barrier so that the woman couldn't see what the Qigong master was doing, her movements stopped matching what he did. They also investigated an experiment being conducted on so-called psychic children, who supposedly could tell how many matches were in a box without looking. However, when Randi and his friends taped the boxes shut, their "powers" vanished.

He went undercover to expose a famous faith healer

Peter Popoff was once a famous faith healer and self-proclaimed prophet, claiming to be able to cure any ailment or disability, from deafness to cancer, with the power of God. He advised his audience of thousands to throw their mobility aids and pills into the aisles of his church, because he claimed they wouldn't need them anymore. He also encouraged them to pay him for the privilege. As James Randi stated in "An Honest Liar," "A man like Reverend Peter Popoff is a very dangerous man...he was taking peoples' faith in their religion... In many cases he was harming them physically because he was convincing them that they didn't have to go to doctors anymore."

Popoff was able to convince his congregation of his abilities by seeming to know impossible things about them, like their full names and addresses. Randi and several of his friends conducted an investigation into Popoff by attending his shows in disguise. Randi's fake identity was "Adam Jersin," an anagram of "James Randi." During their investigation, they discovered that all attendees were asked to fill out "prayer request forms" that included this information before the show, and then Popoff's wife would simply read him the information through an earpiece disguised as a hearing aid.

He proved scientists had been fooled with teenage metal benders

James Randi was frustrated by parapsychologists who claimed to study psychics using scientific methods. As described in "An Honest Liar," Randi believed it was impossible to fairly study these claims because the subjects were intentionally deceiving the researchers. In order to demonstrate that the researchers could be easily deceived, Randi deceived them himself — with the help of a couple of teenage fans.

They were Michael Edwards and Steve Shaw (the latter now known as the magician Banachek), who had both become adept at bending spoons using the same tricks as Uri Geller. A large study was being funded to investigate the possibility of psychic abilities, and while there were many applicants, the researchers ended up choosing Edwards and Shaw. Even with Randi assisting the researchers by coming up with ways to thwart trickery, both Edwards and Shaw were able to deceive the researchers into believing they had supernatural abilities at every turn. The truth only came out when Randi, Edwards, and Shaw held a press conference revealing the hoax.

Randi always cared about people first

In a tribute to James Randi in Skeptical Inquirer, shortly after his death in October of 2020, fellow magicians Penn and Teller stated, "Randi proved you could be skeptical without ever being cynical. Randi never hypothesized the worst in people. He never gave up on humanity. He didn't believe in evil. He trusted and he loved. He was always kind. Randi was the world's most famous skeptic, but he was never skeptical of love."

While Randi is remembered as an uncompromising skeptic with no tolerance for superstition, there was more to his career as a skeptic than just a disdain for supernatural claims. His desire to expose frauds came not only from a fury at watching charlatans get away with fraud, but also from a deep desire to protect people from being exploited.

"He has a mission out there in the world as The Amazing Randi, but it's compassion," Randi's husband José Alvarez explained in "An Honest Liar." "People don't know how much he cares when he sees someone in distress ... He will do what is necessary to save somebody."