By Pat Jordan
Updated August 11, 1986 12:00 PM

James Randi is a short, bald, white-bearded man with dancing eyes, who has devoted most of his life to making things disappear. Pennies. Rabbits. The ace of spades. Himself. He appears onstage in a tuxedo. A leggy blonde in sequined tights locks him in a coffin. After an appropriate pause, she opens the coffin and Randi has vanished. Last month the 58-year-old magician who bills himself as the Amazing Randi found a compelling reason to make himself reappear. He was “officially” declared a genius and awarded $272,000 over five years by the MacArthur Foundation.

The Chicago-based philanthropic organization usually bestows its awards on such conventional high-achievers as composers, scientists and historians and certainly not on the sort of man whose front door name-plate reads “Randi—Charlatan.” In fact, Randi was given his stipend not for his feats of prestidigitation, but because over the last 40 years he has used his brilliantly analytical mind to expose as frauds a host of psychics, faith healers, clairvoyants and other would-be paranormals. If he could, Randi would wave a magic wand and “Poof!” they would all disappear. “The difference between [psychics] and me,” he says, “is that I admit I’m a charlatan. They don’t. They hurt people. I can’t allow that to happen.”

Before Randi’s selection as a MacArthur recipient, hundreds of candidates were nominated by leaders in the arts, humanities, sciences and professions. Finally, a selection committee of 13 anonymous experts picked Randi and the 24 other winners on the basis of their creativity, promise, dedication, benefit to society and need of money. “Randi certainly has been our most novel selection and one of the most popular,” says Dr. Kenneth Hope, the program’s director. “He was nominated by three different people from three different parts of the country. We have always wanted to expand our direction to include people other than just ivory-tower types, and Randi works as an educator. One physician on the committee said Randi may save more lives than most doctors.”

News of his good fortune reached Randi at his dentist’s office. “I called a number on my answering machine and this voice said, ‘Hello, MacArthur Foundation.’ Chills went down my spine. Afterward I got in my dentist’s chair and said, ‘Listen, before you begin, I’ve got to tell you something.’ He nodded, without expression. When I finished, he said, ‘Good. Now you can pay your bill,’ and began drilling.”

Randi makes his living by lecturing, giving magic shows, appearing on The Tonight Show and other TV talkfests, and by writing books on magic and psychic frauds. Over the last few years, however, his debunking business had fallen on hard times. He was forced to sell his house in New Jersey two years ago and move to a less expensive one in Sunrise, Fla. Under the circumstances, the award was most welcome. “I can really use the money,” he says. “My income had dwindled from $45,000 a year to $33,000, and I was getting so desperate that I was putting another magic act together to go on the road in January.”

He still plans to do that, but he also feels free to resume his crusade against psychic pretenders. “Now I can do battle against fakes from a charger, in a suit of armor, instead of naked on a mule,” he says. His present office is a claustrophobic little room in his two-story Colonial-style home. A word processor and leaning stacks of paper take up most of the space. “I plan to extend my office out over the garage,” says Randi, “and then hire an assistant. The money will allow me to pursue my next project full-time.”

His newfound affluence might even allow for some housekeeping help. The magician’s abode can charitably be described as being in a state of perpetual clutter. (“Mess, you mean,” says Randi, no mincer of words.) The house is filled with objects that have nothing in common except their appeal to Randi’s whimsy. A human skull. A Renaissance print of magicians deceiving a crowd. A butterfly collection. An acrylic head of rock star Alice Cooper, with whom Randi once toured. A bent metal spoon on a homemade, plastic base. (“The Uri Award,” says Randi, referring to the Israeli “psychic,” Uri Geller, who claimed the power to bend spoons mentally. “I give one each year for incompetence.”) Photographs of young men and women of various nationalities, several of whom are his foster children. (Randi, a bachelor, raised one foster son, Alexis, now a 26-year-old musician and composer, from the age of 13. He has supported four foster children, and now, with his award, is helping three more.)

Among his other projects, Randi is writing a book exposing religious faith healers. A touchy subject. One faith healer warned him, in front of his TV congregation, that through St. Paul, God had once struck a magician blind. (“He forgot to mention that the guy’s sight was eventually returned,” says Randi. “Still, that’s all I need—some religious nut throwing acid in my eyes.”) To protect himself, Randi has installed a burglar alarm in his house. He has also sent letters to the faith healers he is investigating informing them that he has sent a duplicate letter to the FBI in case any “accident” should befall him. “I ought to tell them to pray for my good health,” Randi jokes.

One of Randi’s pet peeves remains Uri Geller. He has debunked the self-proclaimed psychic a number of times, performing Geller’s tricks, then explaining how they are done.

During the ’70s, the Pentagon was not so sure about psychic phenomena. Motivated by fears of Soviet psychic warfare, the military set up a task force to investigate the possibility of using psychic weapons against the Soviet Union. “The Pentagon spent a lot of money and didn’t get much out of it,” says Randi, who gave them his Uri Award.

Randall James Zwinge—that’s his real name—was born in Toronto, the son of a telephone company executive. When he was 12, his parents discovered that he had an IQ of 168, so they frequently let him stay home from school, where he was already bored and disrupting his classroom. “I became a shy, lonely kid,” he says. “But I decided I had to learn to live with other people, so at 17 I joined a traveling carnival as a magician, calling myself Prince Ibis. I figured I’d do the thing I feared most, which was getting up in front of people. The first three weeks were pure hell, but I wouldn’t have given up that experience for anything.”

He has been deceiving audiences with ease ever since—one explanation, perhaps, for his decision to move on to the greater challenge of matching wits with other magicians who call themselves psychics. Traveling with the carnival, Randi learned things not taught in school. He discovered, for instance, that a “gaff” was a magician’s trick sometimes intended to foster the illusion of psychic powers. The first time young Randi found a magician using a gaff as a supernatural event, he could hardly contain himself.

“A friend of mine took me to a spiritualist church near my home,” he says. “This pastor claimed he could read the contents of sealed envelopes. When I ran up on stage and showed the audience how the gaff worked, he screamed for the police. I was arrested for disturbing a religious meeting. I spent four hours in a police station waiting for my father to come get me. I was seething.” He smiles now, recalling that day, and says, “That was the worst four hours the world’s ‘psychics’ ever spent, although they didn’t know it at the time.”