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The End of the Magic World’s 50-Year Grudge

In 1973, a young man named Uri Geller appeared on one of the BBC’s most popular television shows, “The Dimbleby Talk-In,” and announced that the laws of Newtonian physics did not apply to him. Or that, at least, was the implication. A handsome 26-year-old Israeli, dressed casually and flanked by a pair of academics, Mr. Geller performed a series of bewildering feats using nothing more, he said, than his mind.

He restarted a stopped watch. He duplicated a drawing that had been sealed in an envelope. Then he appeared to bend a fork simply by staring at it.

“It’s cracking,” Mr. Geller said quietly, speaking over a tight shot of his right hand, which was gently rubbing the fork between his fingers. “It’s becoming like plastic.”

A few seconds later, the top of the fork fell off and hit the ground. By the time the applause of the studio audience died down, Gellermania had begun.

Mr. Geller became not just a global celebrity — a media darling who toured the world and filled auditoriums for dramatic demonstrations of cutlery abuse, with the humble spoon becoming his victim of choice — but also the living embodiment of the hope that there was something more, something science couldn’t explain. Because at the core of his performance was a claim of boggling audacity: that these were not tricks.

They were displays of raw psychic powers.

“I’ve never even seen a magic show,” Mr. Geller, now a lean and tireless 76-year-old, said during a recent interview in Tel Aviv at the Uri Geller Museum, which he opened in 2021. “Except one: Siegfried and Roy in Las Vegas, because I missed a flight.”

Charm and a seemingly bottomless supply of chutzpah were essential to his fame, and with fame came a one-man, multimillion-dollar enterprise, built on sales of tickets and books, and the reality TV show “The Next Uri Geller,” which had versions in Israel, in the United States and around Europe.

It’s a fortune he might have never earned, he said, without a group of highly agitated critics. Mr. Geller was long shadowed by a handful of professional magicians appalled that someone was fobbing off what they said were expertly finessed magic tricks as acts of telekinesis. Like well-matched heavyweights, they pummeled one another in the ’70s and ’80s in televised contests that elevated them all.

Mr. Geller ultimately emerged the victor in this war, and proof of his triumph is now on display in the museum: a coffee-table book titled “Bend It Like Geller,” which was written by the Australian magician Ben Harris and published in May.

Timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the “Talk-In” appearance, the book celebrates Mr. Geller as a brilliant and highly original magical entertainer. Which represents a significant change of heart for Mr. Harris, who was once among Mr. Geller’s most avid debunkers.

Today, Mr. Harris and Mr. Geller are friends who text or talk nearly every day. Mr. Harris looks back at his 1985 attack book, “Gellerism Revealed,” as the work of an angry young man who had missed the point.

And the point is that Mr. Geller is an entertainer, one who’d figured out that challenging our relationship to the truth, and daring us to doubt our eyes, can inspire a kind of wonder, if performed convincingly enough. Mr. Geller’s bent spoons are, in a sense, the analog precursors of digital deep fakes — images, videos and sounds, reconfigured through software, so that anyone can be made to say or do anything.

Unlike a lot of self-help gurus, yogis and crackpot messiahs who rose to prominence in the early-1970s age of weird, Mr. Geller endured and his cultural impact proved both singular and lasting. Ikea produced a Geller-inspired stool, which had bent, wavy legs. Nintendo made a spoon-wielding Pokémon character, Kadabra, who could cause clocks to run backward. References to Mr. Geller, or mangled silverware, have appeared in songs by R.E.M., Toad the Wet Sprocket and Incubus, and made a memorable cameo in “The Matrix.”

“It’s not the spoon that bends,” a bald tyke in a robe tells Neo, Keanu Reeves’s character. “It is only yourself.”

A mere handful of magicians have left anything close to this kind of imprint. If Mr. Geller can’t actually bend metal with his brain — and civility and fairness demands this “if” — he is the author of a benign charade, which is a pretty good definition of a magic trick. Small wonder that the anti-Geller brigade has laid down its arms and led a rapprochement with the working professionals of magic. He is a reminder that people thrill at the sense that they are either watching a miracle or getting bamboozled. And now that fakery is routinely weaponized online, Mr. Geller’s claims to superpowers seem almost innocent.

“I mean this in the most respectful way,” said Andy Nyman, a magician and actor who a few years ago introduced a lecture by Mr. Geller at the Blackpool Magic Convention, an appearance that cemented this truce. “I think the world is aware that if he’s fraudulent, there are bigger lies and bigger frauds out there that are far more damaging.”

A sloping 53-foot, 11-ton spoon made of rusting steel sits outside the Uri Geller Museum, in the ancient neighborhood of Old Jaffa. Throughout the day, tourists gather to gawk at the sculpture, and when Mr. Geller spots them, he often bounds down a flight of stairs to say hello and offer a quick performance.

“Where are you all from?” he asked a group of Austrians who gathered there one afternoon in May. As they answered, he quickly began to rub a spoon, which appeared to droop in his hands, that he autographed and tossed into the crowd, like a bouquet of flowers at a wedding.

“Thank you for coming to Israel!” he shouted as he walked off, to a round of applause.

The impromptu show lasted about a minute. He came, he bent, he left.

Mr. Geller is a vegan who doesn’t drink or smoke, and he is always either moving or talking, usually both. During five hours of interviews over two days, he repeatedly said that he was shameless, which turns out to be one of his most winning qualities. He has a spoon tattooed on his right arm, which bends when he brings his hand to his shoulder, a hammy sight gag he’ll perform for anyone.

He is less dogmatic about claims to otherworldly gifts now, preferring to call himself a “mystifier.” Time and again, he emphasized his chops as a performer, a man who could mesmerize an audience, largely through ad-libbed interactions and charisma. When young magicians come and ask for advice, he suggests what amounts to a makeover.

“I tell them, ‘Wear Armani T-shirts, buy Hermès after-shave, fix your teeth, smile a lot, be nice to people,’” he said, sitting in a chair in the middle of the museum. “This is the way to become famous and loved by your audience.”

Mr. Geller never retired, though he doesn’t travel much any more and spends nearly every day here, giving group tours — no walk-ins, please — to roughly 250 people each week. He spent $6 million buying and four years refurbishing the Ottoman-era soap factory, an investment he knows he will never recoup.

He and Hanna, his wife of 52 years, decided in 2015 to leave England, where the couple had raised their two now-adult children. The family had lived in a nine-bedroom mansion in a village outside London, with a Jacuzzi, tennis court, helicopter pad and glass meditation pyramid. His next-door neighbor was George Clooney; Jimmy Page lived down the street. The house is on the market for the equivalent of just under $10 million.

In Britain, Mr. Geller maintained the sort of profile that got him invited to appear on the TV show “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!” as he found endless ways to insert himself into the news — offering to stop Brexit telekinetically, taking credit for dislodging the tanker that was stuck in the Suez Canal.

“I’m the best publicist in the world, come on,” he said, matter-of-factly. “You can promote Coca-Cola, you can promote a car. It doesn’t matter, as long as you use my techniques, which are brilliant.”

The museum tour he offers is a strange, slightly maddening way to spend an hour. Mr. Geller is a self-professed hoarder, and the place is essentially the contents of his attic, or a few storage bins, tastefully laid out as a permanent exhibition.

With a wireless microphone in hand, he seems intent on introducing visitors to every curio in the building. Here is a sculpture of a horse made of driftwood. That’s a table designed by Versace. This is a piece of marble from the United Nations.

“Yoko Ono, amazing woman,” he said, pausing by one of dozens of photographs. “She always wears Porsche glasses.”

By the time you get to the 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood, covered with a few thousand bent spoons, you realize that the Uri Geller story isn’t told at the Uri Geller Museum in a tour by Uri Geller. The experience ends with a somewhat perfunctory spoon bending (“Doesn’t matter how I do it, whether it’s real or not”) and then a slightly off-key version of “My Way,” in a recording sung by Mr. Geller himself, which plays over a montage of our hero with famous people — including Salvador Dalí and Muhammad Ali.

“I have so many questions,” said Gila Bublick, an American living in Israel, who was on the tour, sounding exhilarated and befuddled.

No questions were taken. Asked the next day why so little of his biography was in the tour, Mr. Geller said he thought his possessions were more interesting than his story.

Which is wrong.

By the time Mr. Geller appeared on “The Dimbleby Talk-In,” his career had already endured several near-death experiences. Raised in poverty as an only child, he said the first time he bent a spoon was while eating mushroom soup in his mother’s kitchen around age 5. It didn’t occur to him that this could be a profession until many years later, after he had left the army and was working as a courier and part-time model. At a photo shoot, he bent a photographer’s key.

“The guy freaked out and said, ‘I’m having a house party tonight, will you come and demonstrate your powers because nobody is going to believe me,’” Mr. Geller recalled. “I go and I’m stunned. I’m stunned by the reaction.”

He soon was paid to perform at other parties, then small theaters, then larger ones. Each performance was unscripted and chaotic, its lack of polish only enhancing the sense that this was not a show.

Word spread about this hunky guy with the paranormal act. His first setback came in 1970, when a public relations man concocted and published a fabricated image of Mr. Geller with Sophia Loren, whom he’d visited in Rome. Ms. Loren’s objections made front-page news in Israel, and Mr. Geller assumed he was finished. He asked his manager to cancel that evening’s show in Haifa.

“I get to the theater that night, there are 400 people outside without tickets,” he said. “It was sold out. That’s when I realized controversy, for me, is a diamond on a silver platter.”

There were soon more platters. In 1973, he was a guest on “The Tonight Show,” and for 20 intensely awkward minutes Mr. Geller didn’t even try to bend the objects laid out in front of him. (The vibe was wrong, he explained.) Astonishingly, viewers seemed to regard the failure as a sign of authenticity. Only someone at the mercy of the universe’s unpredictable vibrations, went the theory, could have flopped like that.

His appearance on “The Dimbleby Talk-In,” a few months later, was the performance of a daredevil who doesn’t need a motorcycle to risk his life.

The two academics who sat on either side of Mr. Geller were, it turned out, both fans of the paranormal. (One, Lyall Watson, argued in a book that the emotions of plants could be registered on a lie detector.) The role of rational observer fell that evening to David Berglas, one of Britain’s most famous magicians, who had been invited backstage by the show’s host, David Dimbleby, to offer an instant assessment.

Now 96 years old, Mr. Berglas remembered the conversation in a recent phone interview.

“Can you do that?” Mr. Dimbleby asked him when the show was over.

“Of course,” Mr. Berglas said. He then picked up a teaspoon and bent it after a brief rub.

“Yes,” Mr. Dimbleby said, unimpressed, “but you’re a magician.”

One early Geller devotee was Mr. Harris, who watched the “Dimbleby” show from his grandparents’ home in Sydney, Australia. He was 15 at the time and already a performing magician. After the broadcast, as instructed by Mr. Geller, he went to the kitchen, grabbed a utensil and willed it to bend. It did.

“I was totally sucked in,” he said in a recent phone interview. “If it had been presented as a magic trick, I would have figured it out immediately. But this was something else, something standing on the edge of the unknown.”

It was also something new. Psychic metal bending wasn’t among the dozen or so genres of magic, like card tricks or levitation. And this guy didn’t dress the part. He wore street clothes and lacked a patter. Briefly, Mr. Harris said, he imagined a better world, one in which the energy crisis was solved, in part, by mind power. Because if one guy could bend a fork, who knows what a few million people could achieve?

By 1976, Mr. Harris was becoming a doubter. That year, he attended a Geller show in Brisbane, along with about 4,000 others, and remembers an eccentric, riveting performance with a tray of spoons and keys provided by the audience and stretches of silence punctuated by inexplicable bends. After the show, Mr. Harris managed to get backstage, the first and only time he met Mr. Geller in person. He handed him a matchbox, wrapped in tinfoil and tape, containing a piece of metal.

“It was a challenge from a hyperactive young man,” Mr. Harris said during a recent video call with Mr. Geller. “He started to unravel it, then said: ‘No, no, no, you take it home, unravel it. See if it’s bent and let me know.’”

It was not bent. By then, Mr. Harris realized that the slight anomaly in his grandparents’ spoon three years earlier had been there all along. Like many collections of well-worn utensils, they varied in curvature, something nobody ever had reason to notice until then.

Mr. Harris felt hoodwinked, which is why the book “Gellerism Revealed” is infused with the rage of disillusionment.

“I basically call him a fraud and charlatan,” he said.

James Randi, a Canadian magician and escape artist, known professionally as the Amazing Randi, went much further. A relative unknown at the time, Mr. Randi, who eventually won a MacArthur Fellowship as a professional skeptic, was the loudest anti-Geller voice in the world.

“He is intending to enter the ‘psychic healing’ field soon, and when he starts into that racket he can kill people,” he wrote in an edition of his book “The Truth About Uri Geller.” He also called Mr. Geller a “dangerous and insidious figure,” one he intended to stop “at all costs.”

Those costs, it turned out, were high. Mr. Geller filed defamation lawsuits against Mr. Randi, including one for claiming that Mr. Geller was performing tricks once taught on the back of cereal boxes. The so-called cornflakes case ended with a dismissal, but over the years Mr. Randi burned through most of his $272,000 MacArthur grant covering personal legal expenses. He died three years ago and apparently loathed his nemesis to the end. He once asked that someone throw his cremated ashes into Mr. Geller’s eyes, an obituary in The Economist stated.

The vitriol is a little hard to fathom. It’s true that Mr. Geller had a lucrative side hustle in the 1980s working for mining companies who thought his putative psychic powers could help them determine where to dig. In a 1986 Financial Times story, he said that his standard fee was 1 million pounds per assignment, $3 million in inflation-adjusted terms, and that 11 companies had retained him.

Mr. Geller’s track record as a prospector is not known, and he says he can’t remember. But he never went into faith healing, nor did he charge enough to leave many with a case of buyer’s remorse. He performed live shows and wrote books like “Use Your Psychic Powers to Have It All.”

So watching the Geller haters now is like watching people run into nursery schools shouting that there is no Santa Claus. Consider Mr. Randi’s appearance on Barbara Walters’s talk show in 1974. He arrived soon after Mr. Geller had been there and entranced the host by bending her door key, apparently with his mind. Mr. Randi had now come to prove that there was nothing psychic about this feat.

“Here is my identical key,” Ms. Walters told Mr. Randi, challenging him to equal Mr. Geller, and clearly hoping he would fail. “Touch it and make it bend.”

A few moments later, the key is bent. Ms. Walters deflates. Suddenly, Mr. Geller seemed like a workaday huckster and the world seemed a little duller. She looked at the key that Mr. Randi had just bent and began theatrically boohooing, as if to say, “Thanks for nothing, you buzz killer.”

The science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and today magic and technology are merging. Start-ups in the field of artificial intelligence are the new masters of illusion; algorithms are the new sleight of hand.

“Geller’s bent spoon demonstrations and deep fakes both create this conflict between what we think is possible and what we’re seeing,” said Alice Pailhès, an author of “The Psychology of Magic.” “Both elicit strong emotional responses — confusion, delight, distress, maybe even paranoia.”

The stakes, of course, are different. Get fooled by a spoon bender and you’re likely to end up with a smile on your face. Get fooled by a pernicious deep fake and you might end up believing that video posted last year of President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine appearing to surrender, or something else that is false and noxious. This time, it’s going to take much more than Mr. Randi and Ben Harris to flag the frauds.

The upsides of digital fakes have, inevitably, intrigued more than a few magicians. Drummond Money-Coutts, the English conjurer who starred in the Netflix series “Death by Magic,” said in an interview that he was looking into possibilities presented by Midjourney, the program used to produce an image of Pope Francis in a Balenciaga puffer jacket that went viral a few months ago. He still prefers nondigital methods, though, which he attributes in no small part to the influence of Mr. Geller.

Mr. Money-Coutts first met Mr. Geller in 2003. A student at the British prep school Eton who was a budding magician, he invited Mr. Geller to perform for 700 gobsmacked schoolboys. (“I was told to write a letter to the catering department to apologize because they basically had no spoons for weeks after he came,” Mr. Money-Coutts recalled.) Mr. Geller had relocated to Britain by then, having spent 12 tumultuous years in the United States, most of them in New York City.

While there, he had gotten rich, but he wasn’t equipped for money or fame on this scale, and he was rattled by the verbal assaults. He struggled with panic attacks and became anorexic and bulimic. He also shopped compulsively, once buying 100 silk shirts during a visit to a Brioni store in Milan, few of which he ended up wearing.

“It was decadence,” he said. “I had 10 Gucci suitcases, leather Gucci suitcases. Do you know how much they cost?”

Mr. Geller gradually regained his mental equilibrium, though his taste for luxury proved hard to shake. When he moved to Britain in the mid-80s — a relative suggested it would be a better place to raise a family — he fell in love with a house in Sonning, a village 40 miles west of London, because it reminded him of Graceland and the White House. He more than doubled the square footage of the place, adding bedrooms, a cinema room and gold-plated bathroom fixtures. At some point, about six years ago, it all started to seem berserk.

“I just looked at the marble and the crystal chandeliers,” he said of Sonning Court, as the house is known, “and I thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of this.’”

He wanted to radically downsize, he said, and today he lives in a modest one-bedroom apartment not far from where he grew up. He has settled where he began. On the off chance that he can’t truly bend metal with his mind, he has done something less miraculous but nearly as implausible: He has earned a very comfortable living for 50 years performing what is essentially the most acclaimed party trick of all time.

Now and then, he speaks to magicians, giving tips and what are essentially motivational speeches. Be original, be persistent, stick with a persona, he tells listeners. At the Blackpool Magic Convention in February 2020, he gave all that advice to a packed room, and he performed a newish effect. He poured radish seeds into his hand and asked everyone to chant “Sprout!” over and over. As he swirled the seeds with a finger, a close-up camera showed a green shoot that seemed to materialize in the middle of his hand, as though it had been willed to blossom.

“Among magicians,” asked a cheeky young man, during the question and answer part of the presentation, “was that a magic trick? Did you sneak a bit of cress in with your seeds?”

“Are you serious?” Mr. Geller all but shouted, more amused than galled. “Do you really think that I’m going to say at the age of 73 that this was a trick? Get a life!”

Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.

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