James Randi has escaped a locked coffin submerged in the sea, and from a straitjacket dangling over Niagara Falls. Choose a word from a 200-page book, and he'll guess it. Pick an object, and he'll make it fade from sight.
He gave up performing as the Amazing Randi years ago, but his words to the audience at the end of each show gave a preview of his next act.
"Everything you have seen here is tricks," he would say. "There is nothing supernatural involved here. I hope you'll accept my word for that. Thank you and good evening."
For more than two decades, Randi has been the country's skeptic-in-chief, aiming his arrow of rationalism at psychics and faith healers, mediums and mentalists.
Toronto-born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge's storied career as a magician and escape artist came after the child prodigy dropped out of high school and left home to join the carnival. His stage routine gave way to a nagging need to speak out against those whose work he regarded as nonsense - not just those who read palms and minds, but chiropractors, homeopaths and the like.
Randi's "coming out" as a skeptic essentially arrived on a 1972 episode of The Tonight Show in which he helped Johnny Carson set up Uri Geller, the Israeli performer who claimed to bend spoons with his mind. Randi ensured the spoons and other props were kept from Geller's hands until showtime to prevent tampering. The result was an agonizing 22 minutes in which Geller was unable to perform any tricks.
In the years since, he has garnered a MacArthur fellowship, established the James Randi Educational Foundation and become guardian of a $1-million prize earmarked for anyone who can prove supernatural powers. It remains unclaimed.
Randi will go to great lengths to expose - whether it be years of research for books debunking everything from Nostradamus to extrasensory perception or the days he spent in his car, eating Twinkies and drinking Pepsi as he waited for the chance to go through the trash of a faith healer.
For all the analysis Randi puts into seemingly everything, he still finds delight in observing magic he knows is a stunt or watching a film that is just fantasy.
Randi is 78 years old, 5 feet 6, with gold-rimmed glasses, a bald head and bushy white eyebrows and beard.
He is energetic and lucid, quick with a joke, and looking back on his life he can't help feeling some frustration. No matter what fraud-busting light he casts on purveyors of the paranormal, they seem to pull off escape acts of their own, continuing to win followers and to earn checks.
His voice grows as he begins the litany of offenders: television faith healer Peter Popoff and psychic Sylvia Browne and so on. He once showed that the messages Popoff claimed to be getting from God about his audience were actually coming from his wife through an earpiece. Browne once agreed to take his challenge and prove her abilities, but later backed out.
Geller, who remains a target on Randi's Web site, acknowledges his appearance on The Tonight Show was a humiliation but notes his career has soldiered on.
"I thought, 'This is it. I'm finished.' But exactly the opposite happened," Geller said. "People like Randi - skeptics - actually made my career. They did for me what a PR man would have asked a million dollars for."
Geller said he will not take Randi's $1-million challenge because he has no interest getting involved with someone who hates him. Randi says hate is too strong a word, but there is such vitriol when the men talk of one another it seems their battle could continue into the afterlife.
Randi has made an arrangement. He says if he dies before Geller, he'd like to be cremated and for the ashes to be given to a friend.
"My best friend is instructed to throw them in Uri Geller's eyes," he said, purportedly as a joke. "I'd like him to get an eyeful of my ashes. I think that would be appropriate."
IN HIS WORDS
Skeptic James Randi speaks on ...
"There's obviously life elsewhere in the universe. I think mathematically that's inescapable because of the almost infinite size of the universe." But he doesn't believe in UFOs because of the great distances they would have to travel and the lack of evidence. "I cannot imagine they wouldn't land on the lawn of the White House, for example, instead of some drunken fisherman someplace in Okefenokee Swamp."
"I think that the same way a computer dies when you put a bullet through it after pulling the plug out, I don't think that we live beyond the grave at all. I don't see any reason to, I don't see any compelling evidence to support that belief."
(The idea that tiny amounts of certain natural substances stimulate the body's healing response).
"Sheer quackery. It's not only physically, chemically impossible to have any effect, but any definitive tests that have been done have been negative."
"Charlatans that take advantage of the credulity and naivete of their followers."
"The present government, which uses faith-based initiatives, I think has been a very negative system for us. And I think that this administration has been most harmful to our reputation around the world as far as logic and rationality and critical thinking go."
"Chiropracty is based upon a totally false premise that there are subluxations in the spine and such."
"Love is a great idea. I can't define it very well but you'll recognize it when you see it or when it happens, I guess."