"I never claim they don't have these powers," Randi says. "I just say there is no evidence to support these claims. I say, 'If it's so, I'll give you a million dollars.' That's a pretty big carrot."
It's unclear how long the foundation would survive or who would carry on the challenge if Randi can't beat his cancer. On the first morning of the conference, Randi, looking more slouched and frail than most of his fans have seen him, rises slowly from his wheelchair and walks up the steps of the stage. He tells the crowd of dedicated faces peering back at him about his coming chemotherapy. Two weeks earlier, doctors had removed a Ping-Pong-ball-sized tumor from his intestines.
"We'll fight it," he says. "And we'll beat this. We still have a lot of work to do." He reassures the audience, though many men and women can't fight back tears.
Randi's voice is scratchy and strained from the tubes down his throat during the surgery. Hangover from the anesthesia has caused occasional blurry spots in his otherwise remarkable memory. The procedure has left him weak, begrudgingly confined most of the time to a wheelchair. "It's not a matter of pride," he explains. "It's a matter of the impression you make on people. You want to appear to be empowered. It's the show business in me."
When Randi was 15, he heard of a preacher in his hometown of Toronto who claimed he could read minds. Randi had been reading every book he could find on magic and illusions, so he figured he could figure out what trick the preacher was using on his flock.
One Sunday morning, Randi watched the preacher use a classic "one ahead" scam. The preacher used information obtained ahead of time to trick the crowd into believing that he could read minds. Randi took the stage as he imagined his hero Harry Houdini might have done and preached to the congregation about being duped, explaining the trick the preacher had used. He was immediately run out of the church.
Dissidence would become a regular reaction to Randi, who was born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in 1928. He describes himself as a quick learner but a bit of a rabble-rouser — he was once kicked out of his Sunday school class for heresy.
When he was 12, he stumbled into a matinee performance by famed magician Harry Blackstone Sr., who made a lady float in the air just feet from the stunned boy. "That got me," Randi says. "That grabbed me, and it never let go. It's still got a hold of my head right now."
A year after the church incident, Randi was in a bicycle accident that left him in a full-body cast for 13 months. Randi figured that even confined to the cast, he could still perform at nightclubs as a mentalist. "In those days, they were paying me 70 bucks a week," he says. "Now that was a lot of Canadian dollars, I can tell you." He decided he would make it clear at the end of every show that he was simply using illusions. But he was disturbed when audience members would insist he had paranormal powers — ironically ignoring the only bit of truth he'd spat out all night. People seemed to want to believe in the supernatural.
Before he graduated high school, Randi left town with the carnival, performing as "Prince Ibis." At age 22, he pulled off a highly publicized escape from a Quebec City jail cell, a trick Houdini used to perform. A local newspaper dubbed him "L'etonnant Randi," The Amazing Randi, "with an i at the end," he says, "like Houdini." For three decades, Randi toured the world by train, plane, and ship, headlining marquees from the Deep South to the Far East. He was bound in straitjackets and dangled over waterfalls, buried alive, handcuffed, and locked in an oversized milk jug.
But Randi could never shake the need to educate the naive. Working at nightclubs in East Asia, he learned new con-man techniques, and when he came back, he had a bug for debunking. In the 1960s, he hosted a radio show in New York in which he would, among other things, argue with astrologers ("complete woo-woo," he says) and confront chiropractors ("three chiropractors, three completely different diagnoses").
The height of his fame came when Johnny Carson invited him to the Tonight Show. Carson had him back 37 times, and the two became good friends. "Johnny was a very skilled magician, very accomplished," Randi says.
Living in northern New Jersey, Randi befriended other great American thinkers, like astronomer Carl Sagan and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Randi and Asimov would sing Gilbert and Sullivan tunes deep into the night. "He had such a wonderful voice," Randi remembers. Randi and Sagan would discuss their shared love of astronomy. Sagan helped name a comet after Randi.