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Magician Penn Jillette and his usually quiet partner, Teller, have known Randi for nearly 35 years. "Make no mistake," Teller says. "Randi is the reason everybody's here." Regulars at the Amazing Meeting, Penn and Teller often cite Randi during their nightly show at the Rio and on their Showtime show Bullshit! "He means everything to us," Penn says. "It's hard to think of something he doesn't influence that we do. There certainly wouldn't be a Penn & Teller as it is now if not for Randi."
Penn puts Randi in the same category as innovators such as Bob Dylan and Pablo Picasso — people who moved the world through their life's work. Penn first visited Randi's house in New Jersey in 1975, and it gave him an idea of how he wanted to live his life: "The door opened the wrong way, and there were talking birds and Alice Cooper heads," he says. "It was, for me, the first sense that you could be artistically crazy and flamboyant and still grounded in reality."
Randi's debunking work over the past 40 years has earned him fame, powerful friendships, a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, and a spot on Esquire's 1997 list of the Best 100 People in the World.
Hard-core skeptics see their work as a moral imperative. Randi points to the millions of dollars wasted every year on astrology or phony faith healers and psychics who profit from people in pain. "Someone who lies to strangers for money is just as amoral as someone who robs a 7-Eleven," Penn tells the audience at one point.
The emotional tolls of charlatanism are as real as the financial ones: In 2003, on the Montel Williams Show, psychic Sylvia Browne — who charges upward of $700 for personal sessions — told the parents of missing 11-year-old Shawn Hornbeck that their son "is no longer with us" and that his body would be found in "a wooded area." The news devastated his family, until four years later, when Shawn was discovered alive, living in an apartment with his kidnapper.
Randi has confronted Browne on several talk shows. On Larry King Live in 2001, she agreed to take his challenge, but he is still waiting for her to show up.
Randi wasn't the first to dream up financial rewards for people who could prove their paranormal skills. Harry Houdini offered $10,000 of his own money in 1923 to any psychic who could show that his or her gifts were genuine. The master magician said he felt compelled to draw a distinction between entertainers and criminally minded grifters preying upon a gullible public. "It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer," Houdini would say. Nobody passed his challenge.
Following Houdini's model, Randi began offering his own money in 1964 for proof of supernatural powers. First the reward was $1,000 and then $10,000. One of Randi's friends, Internet pioneer Rick Adams, put up $1 million in 1996. The fact that nobody has won the challenge in 40 years doesn't stop a regular stream of applicants: a woman who claimed to cry tears of glass, the man who said he could detect buried water with two bent coat hangers, the lady who could supposedly make strangers urinate using only the power of her mind.
"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. 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-size 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, but 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 and 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 about magic and illusions, so he believed 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 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.