Randi even played himself on an episode of Happy Days — he levitates Mrs. Cunningham, and in the final shot of the episode, Randi steals Fonzi's patented "Ehhh." At one point, Randi toured with Alice Cooper, cutting the rock god's head off with a trick guillotine at the end of every show.
In the '70s, America developed a new fascination with all things paranormal — crystals, tarot cards, astrology parties. Randi found the trends disturbing, and he was particularly irked by a young Israeli named Uri Geller, who said he could bend spoons with his mind and read the thoughts of total strangers. He appeared on countless television shows and was featured in magazines in dozens of languages.
The degree to which people took Geller seriously bothered Randi. Reputable scientists from several labs studied "the Geller effect," how brainwaves affect pliable metal. Those scientists no longer discuss those experiments. Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, invited Geller to the floor of Congress in 1987 to send positive brain waves to Mikhail Gorbachev. The senator and the psychic later claimed at least partial success.
Randi tried to spread the message that Geller's techniques were simple charlatan tricks, old Israeli shtick masked by a trustworthy voice and a warm smile. Randi performed Geller's tricks himself for Barbara Walters. He arranged for Johnny Carson's staff to foil Geller on the Tonight Show. "I'm just feeling very weak tonight," Geller explained to Carson when he couldn't perform anything supernatural.
In 1975, Randi published his first book: The Magic of Uri Geller, later retitled The Truth About Uri Geller. A series of lawsuits and countersuits between Randi and Geller ensued. Geller won a suit against Randi in a Japanese court, claiming Randi had defamed him, but the judge awarded Geller 500,000 yen, or just $2,000. Randi boasts that he's "never paid a dime" to anyone who's sued him.
"Randi is my best unpaid publicist," Geller now says in a phone call from his home in London. "If I had to get a calculator and see how much a high-priced Madison Avenue entertainment publicist would cost, I'd have to say that I got around $10 million worth of free publicity from skeptics."
Geller speaks with an old-world show-business charisma not unlike Randi's. Under other circumstances, the two might have even become friends, but to Randi, Geller has crossed an ethical line — he never came clean about his tricks.
Geller doesn't see it that way. "Without the skeptics, I wouldn't be Uri Geller," he says. "They made me. They created me. They kept the aura, the legend, the mystery, the mysticism around Uri Geller. I owe them bouquets of flowers for keeping my career alive. If they wanted to finish me off over three decades ago, all they had to do is not talk about me. They should have shut up."
Randi, of course, has offered to test Geller, to give him $1 million if he can prove his claims. But Geller always declines, saying anything that would quiet skeptics — and by extension make him less controversial — would hurt his career. "If someone wants to stay in the business of being a psychic," he says, "they should simply ignore the skeptics."
Enticed by the warm weather, Randi moved to Florida in 1985, two years before he became a U.S. citizen. He wanted an organization of his own from which he could launch his lengthy investigations of paranormal claims. He established the nonprofit James Randi Educational Foundation out of a split-level white Fort Lauderdale building with Spanish tile, stained glass over the entrance, and peacocks frolicking in the yard. Images of flying pigs hang on the walls next to old posters, magazine clips, and a letter from Johnny Carson (it accompanied a $100,000 donation). In the "Isaac Asimov Library" are shelves of books on all things paranormal, from phrenology to faith healing, and a portrait of the writer friend for whom the room is named.
The truth is, Randi's obsessions with incredulity and prestidigitation flowered from the same seed. He has always delighted in watching the stunned faces of audiences as he makes them believe — perhaps only for a moment — that they've witnessed something impossible. At lunch, for instance, he makes the salt shaker vanish under a napkin, and when his tablemates finish applauding, he says, "Yes, yes, great dinner entertainment, horrible table manners. Now, has anyone seen the salt?" He gets the same giddy satisfaction making the careers of psychics disappear.
But even before the cancer diagnosis, Randi had faced recent challenges. Like many nonprofits, the James Randi Educational Foundation has taken a severe financial hit over the past year. The foundation is funded through sales of books and DVDs, grants, conferences, donations from wealthy friends, and Randi's speaking engagements, which command as much as $30,000.