MAESTRO: Ricky Jay knows almost as much about the musicians on his new set as he knows about cards and gambling.
Ricky Jay laughs when I tell him he reminds me of Fred Astaire. It seems this is the first time that Jay, a Brooklyn-born bear of a man with a full beard and grizzled visage, has been compared to the greatest dancer of Hollywood’s Golden Age. But like Astaire, Jay has a way of making the impossible look effortless and elegant. What’s different is that Astaire entertained with his slinky legs and a pair of taps; Jay employs his adept hands and a deck of cards.
Jay is one of the top card handlers in the world. He began performing magic, with his grandfather’s encouragement, at age seven; he came to national attention in 1970, when he threw a playing card through a watermelon rind — then repeatedly hit the same incision — at 10 paces on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
But despite two David Mamet–directed theatrical productions that showcase his sleight-of-hand mastery and his abundant knowledge of the lore of cards, magic, cheating, and curiosities of all kinds, he’s best known as a character actor. He played Bond villain Henry Gupta in Tomorrow Never Dies and appeared in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Magnolia. He was typecast as cardsharp Eddie Sawyer on TV’s Deadwood. His long association with playwright/filmmaker Mamet also includes roles in House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, and State and Main.
So his first public foray into music, the elegantly packaged set Ricky Jay Plays Poker (Octone/Legacy), comes as an engaging — albeit gambling-themed — surprise. The just-released box is a card fanatic’s fantasy. Inside there’s an eclectic CD of 21 poker-themed songs that range from the 1920s string-band music of the Mississippi Sheiks to Robert Johnson’s vintage blues to R&B legend O.V. Wright to Bob Dylan to pop modernists Saint Etienne. The mostly rootsy numbers are about cheating, heartbreak, power, desire, loss, anger — a window into the emotionally and psychologically charged territory of the game.
Then there’s a 25-minute DVD where Jay dazzles a table of players with his mind-boggling cheating skills, amusing anecdotes about underhanded playing, and pure peacock trickery. He’s also written a funny, informative 66-page book that describes his life-long fascination with the game and the history of cheating, with an analysis of the songs that explores asides about country legend Merle Travis’s picking style and the subtleties of Patsy Cline’s catalogue. The icing is a handsome regulation deck of playing cards made especially for the set.
When I spoke with Jay by phone from Los Angeles, he’d just finished a run of his one-man show Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants and was getting ready to return to the same theater for an opening of Mamet’s Speed the Plough. He seems like a man who loves his work — all of it.
Who on Earth would play cards with you?
I really don’t play cards. I stopped a long time ago. You make a decision about whether you want to entertain with cards or play cards. It’s pretty tough to try to do both.