James Randi is very happy there’s a career-spanning documentary about him. “I think it’s well-deserved!” he tells us over the phone while in New York, where he’s been attending screenings of the film, “An Honest Liar,” in its theatrical release. The doc covers his days as one of the most successful magicians of the last 60 years, during which he was a regular — billed as “The Amazing Randi” — for the likes of Johnny Carson. He’s also, like Harry Houdini (whose tricks he’d often duplicate), spent his time taking down real charlatans and swindlers, among them self-claimed psychic (now a self-claimed “mystifier”) Uri Geller and evangelical con artist Peter Popoff.
The film often shows you being berated by angry groups on television. It must be nice, at screenings of this film, to have people being nice to you.
I’d say a good third of the people come to the screenings of the film aren’t necessarily skeptical at all. Many of them come in looking a bit grumpy about the whole thing. But you’d be amazed, or I’m amazed — even though I’m amazing as well — I’m amazed to find that they take me by the hand, with tears in their eyes, saying, “You’ve made a great change in my life.” You cannot buy that. But I feel a responsibility to folks who weren’t exposed to the skeptical point of view and realize that not all is as it seems, as it is in the general media, who will almost universally support any paranormal or psychic claim that comes along, because it makes good copy. Many media outlets are only interested in whether it’s sensational copy and if it is then they’ll publish it.
It’s disconcerting to see Popoff still making a living hawking lies even after your legendary takedown.
Popoff is still doing strong. [Laughs] He’s a big on the Internet. All the fakers have taken to the Internet like bucks to water. They’re in there all right. And they’re taking full advantage of it.
Do you get the sense that people like Popoff has some semblance of self-deception and believes his own bulls—?
They’re not self-deceptive at all. Nobody picks up a violin for the first time and plays Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto.” It takes year of practice in self-denial to do that. These people are playing the violin beautifully. The instrument they’re playing is human credulity.
Same with Uri Geller?
No, no, he knows exactly what he’s doing. He can’t bend a spoon consciously between his hands by trickery and misdirection without knowing what he’s doing.
This is a silly question, but I’ve often read of skeptics, like Michael Shermer, saying that they’ll debate someone on intelligent design or climate change, and then he and the person he’s debating go get drinks. I can’t image you’re chummy with Geller, are you?
No! I’ll wrassle him, but I won’t go out for drinks with him. I have no relationship with him like that at all. He’s a crook and a liar and a cheat and a fake. I can’t take that kind of person. As a magician I do that on a stage as a character, an actor playing the part of a magician.