Magic Smackdown!: When 'Amazing' Randi Humiliated Uri Geller
Left: James 'The Amazing' Randi in a promotional photo from a recent PBS documentary, "An Honest Liar." Right: Uri Geller failing to do his magic tricks on 'The Tonight Show' as Johnny Carson looks on. Sources: PBS; YouTube
In 1973, spoon-bending "psychic" Uri Geller appeared on The Tonight Show -- and walked into a trap set by host Johnny Carson and the magician/skeptic James "The Amazing" Randi. It was one of the great "gotcha" moments in TV history, and a highlight of a feud between Randi and Geller over the nature of magic. Is a magician a skilled deceiver, a performer who makes you disbelieve your own eyes -- or does a magician have superhuman abilities?
Geller said he could bend spoons and house keys because of his "psychic" powers. Randi said, more or less, that Geller was full of s**t, and sabotaged Geller's performance on national TV.
In This Corner: James 'The Amazing' Randi
James "The Amazing" Randi was a successful magician in the 1950s and '60s, often performing tricks in the style of his idol, Harry Houdini. But Randi took a principled stand even in his early days -- that his tricks and illusions were just that, tricks and illusions. Once, when accused of having supernatural powers, Randi shot back, "I'm a trickster, I'm a cheat, I'm a charlatan, that's what I do for a living. Everything I've done here was by trickery."
Due to his frankness about the nature of stage magic Randi evolved from magician to celebrity skeptic. He is the co-founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and devoted much of his later life to debunking paranormal activity or what he calls "Woo-woo." Faith healers, mediums and psychics have all felt the sting of Randi's public criticism, and Randi’s most infamous run-in involved a spoon-bending performer named Uri.
And In This Corner: Uri Geller
Uri Geller, born in 1946 in Israel, joined the Israeli Paratroopers brigade at 18 but was injured during the Six-Day War in 1967. Smartly, Uri made the transition from paratrooper to model and nightclub entertainer. Six feet tall and strapping, Geller gained popularity in Israel. His show consisted of bending spoons, reading minds, and forcing watches to run fast. All of these magical feats, he claimed, were done by the power of his mind. Eventually, word of Geller’s prowess made it across the pond to the United States, where little did he know that The Amazing Randi waited.
Don’t Mess With Johnny
As word of Geller’s extraordinary feats reached America, one man of real power decided to put him to the test -- Johnny Carson. The preeminent Tonight Show host was an amateur magician in his own right, and brought Geller on the show to prove his claims of psychic ability. Unbeknownst to Geller, Carson reached out to James “The Amazing” Randi for tips on how to ensure that Geller would really use his mind.
Not So Magical Now
Randi came through with mind-bending advice: switching out Geller’s spoons and various other props with store-bought versions of the same objects. Randi further advised the Tonight Show's producers to prevent Geller or any of his attendants from getting near the objects. Carson, smiling like a Cheshire cat, watched with the rest of the country as Geller attempted to impose the power of his mind on the objects. Nothing happened.
A few minutes passed as Carson urged Geller to bring the magic. After the commercial break, Carson pantomimed true boredom as Geller utterly failed to do a single magical act. Eventually, Geller announced that he felt “pressured” and that he was not “strong enough” that night, therefore, unable to perform.
Just The Beginning
It’s natural to assume that failing to perform on national television would end Mr. Geller’s magical career, but no. Geller told the British website ThisIsMoney that in the late '70s, he was paid $1 million to locate oil in Mexico. When asked what was the best financial year of his life, he replied:
It was 1978. That year, I filled stadiums worldwide with my live shows. I used to get paid up to $70,000 a night.
A Feud Intensifies
Whether it was the fame or fortune of Geller that bothered The Amazing Randi, we don’t know. What we do know is that Randi wasn’t done with Geller. In 1975, Randi wrote a book originally called The Magic of Uri Geller As Revealed By The Amazing Randi. In 1982, perhaps, after Geller’s fame and fortune didn’t wane, the book was republished as The Truth About Uri Geller. In the book, Randi systematically picks apart Geller’s act exposing him as a fraud.
The Magic Of A Courtroom
In 1991, Geller hoped to work some modern-day magic and sued Randi for $15 million for slander. Apparently, Geller did not appreciate Randi’s statement that Geller had “Tricked even reputable scientists" using tricks that "are the kind that used to be on the back of cereal boxes when I was a kid". The judge dismissed the case and Geller was forced to settle for $120,000. Amazingly, that did not end the feud. Geller proceeded to sue Randi two more times both in 1992. Unfortunately, the magic failed for Geller. He lost both times and was forced to pay The Amazing Randi’s court fees on both occasions.
James Randi died on October 20, 2020, at the age of 92. We can only hope that his life's work, crusading against charlatans with fearless skepticism, has made the public less likely to fall for the BS that confronts us every day. Because there is no such thing as BS for its own sake -- sooner or later, whether it's Uri Geller or the faith healer Peter Popoff (another of Randi's targets), the trickster is going to pause the act to reach for our wallets.
Tags: A Brief History Of... | James Randi | Johnny Carson | Magicians | The Tonight Show | Uri Geller | What Did He Do?...
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