In going from “The World’s Youngest Hypnotist” to show-business survivor, the Amazing Kreskin has had a fascinating career. George Joseph Kresge, Jr. learned magic and hypnotism at a young age; equally obsessed with psychology and human behavior, he gave himself a stage name based on the comic-strip crimefighter Mandrake the Magician. Touring indefatigably, he became one of the world’s best-known mentalists, and at his peak, he was the star of his own television show, the author of several books and his own board game, and a regular guest of Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and Regis Philbin. In later years, he taught his keenly honed methods of cold reading to police officers and became known for his savvy political predictions, which he delivers annually on CNN. Now 74 years old, Kreskin shows no signs of slowing down, and he was recently the fictionalized subject of The Great Buck Howard, written and directed by his former touring manager Sean McGinly, produced by Tom Hanks, and starring Hanks’ son Colin. The gregarious mentalist recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the lost art of performance, predicting the future, and seeing himself onscreen.
The A.V. Club: What did you think of how you were portrayed in The Great Buck Howard? It wasn’t an entirely flattering portrait, but it seemed pretty affectionate.
The Amazing Kreskin: I’ve got to tell you, I’ve talked to people all over the world who have seen the film, and I’ve read probably over 200 reviews of it and—well, maybe you’d like a little background on it. It was just over a year ago that I was approached by Tom Hanks’ people in New York, and they placed this script in my hands, which obviously was based on yours truly. But they made it very clear—Sean McGinly, who wrote and directed it, and was my road manager in 1994, pointed out that the first 12 or 14 minutes of the movie are absolutely accurate. The rest of the movie—the plot offstage—had nothing to do with me, but the character onstage is what he captured, and I think captured very affectionately.
But what was… I shouldn’t say “amazing,” because I’ve trademarked that word. [Laughs.] What really amazed me is that, as he’s said, when he wrote the movie, he really wanted the character to reflect yours truly. And then along comes John Malkovich, and as he told me at opening night in New York, he studied literally days of footage of yours truly. He even wanted to perfect the handshake. Regis Philbin, who has a cameo in the movie because I’ve done 109 shows with him, told me that when I shake hands, it’s the dream of every chiropractor on the face of the Earth. Well, they told me that Malkovich got such a kick out of impersonating me that for several days, he couldn’t go anywhere without trying out the handshake. He probably should be given a citation by the chiropractors of California.
By the way, offstage, without ruining it for those who haven’t seen it, the character is surly, cantankerous, moody, and disagreeable—my friends say “My God, what a perfect typecasting.” That isn’t me, but not only is it pretty much me offstage, but almost every single incident that takes place onstage happened at some time or in some way when Sean McGinly was working for me. As a matter of fact, the key incident in the movie is the check test, in which my check—or in the movie, Buck Howard’s check—is hidden by the audience, and if he doesn’t find the check, he doesn’t get paid. The check test has been a focal point in my career, and I’ve done it whether I’m playing state fairs or anniversary shows or banquet halls—I leave the theater and my check is hidden, and when I return, nobody talks. They don’t answer any questions. But if I don’t find my fee, I literally don’t get paid, which is a hell of a way to make a living, of course. And in the movie, it is suggested that this Buck Howard may be using electronic devices, but with all due respect—and I really admire and respect how Sean McGinly handled it and put a statement in the credits about it—I do not and have never done such a thing. But other than that, I think he really captured the whole feel of my performing career over the years.
The other thing everyone wants to know is, how did I feel when I saw an actor on the level of John Malkovich portraying me? And I have to tell you, it’s a very difficult thing for me to explain. All I can say is, everyone reading this, try to imagine that you turned on your computer or your television set, and a person appeared who, while they don’t look just like you, they have your mannerisms and the way you speak. It really is an experience. Things like this don’t take place until you’ve been gone for 20 years and they decide to make a movie about you, unless you’ve been a prolific serial killer or a member of Congress. Then maybe they do it while you’re still alive.
AVC: You’re one of the few active performers from an era that put a lot of value on showmanship. Do you think that’s a lost art with today’s entertainers?
TAK: People behind the scenes, producers I know who work in television and other media and the arts have all told me something similar in recent years. With all the wonderful advances in our society, something is tarnishing the quality of an awful lot of what we do. First of all, we see the erosion of trust in television. The erosion of trust in our political figures, they earned it. That lack of trust, they deserve it. But when they find out that reality shows are scripted—and I’m not exposing anything here—or that there’s a director right off camera guiding the action… real life can be boring sometimes. And that leads to an erosion of trust. The only things on television you can trust now are baseball games and wars, and I’m not sure wars aren’t rehearsed.
Another problem with certain forms of entertainment is that in many, many shows—including in Las Vegas—they no longer have live music. I’ve made some bold predictions, but if someone had asked me whether someday Broadway shows and Las Vegas shows and television concerts would have canned music, I would have said “Hell, no.” Think about what that does. That means that a Frank Sinatra, a Sammy Davis—tremendous performers—would not be able to go out and do a show of the kind that made showmanship such a virtue. There would be nothing where Sinatra could get close to the audience and say, “Look, there’s Sammy Cahn. He wrote a song that was magic; let’s do that song,” and so the orchestra shifts. Instead, you are locked in, and more and more and more, it is stifling creativeness and spontaneity. There is great talent today—as great a talent as there was in the past. There’s only one thing missing: spontaneity. It’s being throttled.
AVC: Is there anyone in your profession today that you really respect, or who you’d like to work with?
TAK: As far as being a mentalist, that’s hard to say, because I try very hard to individualize what I do. I’ve made it my own art form. I started as a magician; I knew pretty much when I was 9 years old what I was going to do. But I gravitated so much to the area of the mind that I made it almost a Kreskin art. I don’t mean it egotistically—people have to realize that by the time I was 16, the New York Times was calling me the youngest hypnotist in the United States. And as the years went by, I began to realize that there was no such thing as the hypnotic trance; it was all suggestion, and so in the course of my career, I’ve been involved in courts, at trials, in changing laws not just in this country, but in England. So my work has taken on a philosophy, a metaphysical aspect as well as pure entertainment. When I’m onstage, of course, I want everyone to realize that I’m there to entertain, and certainly there have been, through the years, magicians that I’ve enjoyed. It’s not that I can’t think of names, it’s just that if I leave anyone out, I’m going to feel like I offended them.
I know there’s a great interest now in channeling and spirit communication, but I’m not a psychic. I can’t figure out why more psychics don’t go to racetracks.
AVC: You’ve never claimed to be a psychic, and you’ve always relied on developing your skills and talents. But you work in a field cluttered with people who claim to have genuine mental powers. What’s your attitude toward that?
TAK: In the field of the paranormal—and I think it’s an area worthy of study—it’s always brought people out of the woodwork who are interested in taking advantage of people’s hopes and frustrations. Even in the field of performance, there are so many people who have claimed they can talk to the dead, and can guide people’s lives or what have you. We should realize that historically, there has been an extraordinary interest in this area before every great war, and usually just after such a war. There was a great interest in spiritualism before the Civil War, before the First World War, the Second World War, and basically, before every great turning of society. And now, with the war on terrorism, but also because of the tremendous impact of the economy, people are naturally looking for other answers, and when that happens, you have mountebanks and opportunists coming through. I don’t care whether it’s with some new health pill or something in the spiritual area.
I’m not knocking genuinely dedicated and sincere people in this area, but you have to be careful, because it is a difficult time, and nobody really knows all the answers. We’re all interested in the future, obviously, because that’s where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. But before we go to some strange guru for answers, my experience, my background, my education—my degree is in psychology—tells me that most of the problems we have in our lives, we create ourselves. Nobody should be offended at that remark, because if it’s true, then it’s within us to change those circumstances, to change our direction and control our situation. Usually all a psychologist can do is to bring out the answers hidden inside of us.
AVC: You’ve recently become well-known for your predictions, which use a very different skill-set than what you do in your stage act. How do you approach making predictions?
TAK: CNN came to me several years ago and said “Would you come in on New Year’s Day and make some predictions? We’ve had psychics and astrologers do it in the past.” And I said, “Oh, no, no, no. I don’t do things like that.” And they said, “Well, there’s a lot going on in the world right now; maybe you’ve got something to say about that.” So I went on and made some silly predictions, but when I was done, I got to thinking about it, and I said “Wait, let’s back up. Look at the people who make predictions. Weathermen do it every day based on existing conditions, and they can predict the evolution of those conditions. You have financiers and financial experts who are always giving out advice.” Of course, they weren’t very good at predicting this situation of the last year and a half in any way, shape, or form. But I started to think things through, and to study; I read about six newspapers a day and four books a day—I have the largest library of anyone in my field. So I started to take things a lot more seriously.
A lot of dramatic things started to happen to me. A few years ago, in Canada, Paul Martin, who was a liberal, was prime minister, and Mike Duffy, who was an anchor for a nightly news show and is now part of the government, came to me and said “Why don’t you take a shot at predicting the election results?” I tour Canada a lot, but I don’t know that much about the government—the truth is, I was home for two days, and I studied about a hundred newspaper clippings—articles, editorials, and so forth—from some of the smaller papers in Canada. I just tried to get a feel for it. So the called me in about a month before the election—up there, their elections are only about a month long, unlike the United States, where there’s about 30 years of campaigning instead of 30 days. Anyway, the night before the election, I was flown in, and they put me on the air, and I said “I think he’s going to win, but I don’t think he’s going to do that well.” I predicted that he’d win about 135 seats, and that made headlines, because he won with 135 seats. But that’s only part of the picture. It was one of those moments in my life that really change the way I think about things.
On the air, I was taking credit for being right, and I jut blurted out, “You know, if this government falls, it won’t be long”—I think I said it would be 14 months. “And Mr. Martin, if that happens, you’ll never be elected again.” And then my jaw stopped, and I stood there, silent. We went to a commercial break, and I said to the producer, “I’m sorry! I don’t know what came over me.” He said, “What, are you crazy? Our phones are going to light up with callers! You should do more stuff like that!” And I said “Why should I stick my neck out like that?”, and time went on, I forgot all about it. But some time later, I was returning from a trip, and I came home and my phone was blinking all over the place—it was filled with messages from Canadian reporters and Mike Duffy’s staff. Martin’s government had collapsed—three parties went against him with a vote of no confidence. I was only off by five days.
I predicted the election of Obama in December of 2007—that’s 11 months or so before the election. And I discussed this with CNN reporters at the time; the people who were really viable at that time were Hillary Clinton and [Rudolph] Giuliani, and possibly Huckabee as well. Obama was near the bottom of the list at that time. But there were a number of things that made me come to this conclusion: One, I sensed an economic disaster coming. Two, many people, as I traveled this country—and I’m only home four nights a year; I did 198 appearances all over the world last year—seemed worried in some way that they couldn’t put their finger on. Even in conversations after shows, I would get this from many people. And I thought, “Wait a minute. If something like that happens, they’re going to blame the GOP, because they’re in office.” Of course, it turns out that both parties were to blame, going back 15 years, but the Republicans are the ones in office, which means you’re left with the Democrats. So I had to think in terms of who could lead the Democrats, and I heard a rumor that Oprah was going to support Obama. And I thought about when I was a kid, and Arthur Godfrey supported General Eisenhower because he was a military man, and just his remarks turned the tide. And that’s what made me pick Obama.
I’ve often been asked what led me to say such a thing. I don’t know. But I do know that many of the great minds I’ve studied, including men like Einstein, would work this way. Einstein would row a boat out onto a lake at Princeton, and he’d let the oars drift; whatever would come to him would come to him intuitively. John Kennedy would read trash magazines after he met with his staff, because he felt the pressure lift, and he felt freedom, and the answers would come to him unconsciously. And I think I amass this information, and then it comes up intuitively out of all that.
AVC: So you can predict the future, and you have an uncanny ability to read people, but do you still find that people have the capacity to surprise you after all these years?
TAK: Yes. I have traveled a lot—the airline industry has estimated that in my career, I’ve flown over 3 million miles, which is more than many pilots, they tell me—but people can still surprise me. I’ve been talking to people on my latest tours, and this is not an easy time; the economic climate is affecting every single business on the face of the Earth. I see downsizing in broadcasting, radio, television, even hospitals are being affected by the climate and the lack of money. We see so many people that we’re close to out of work. But something is happening, and it renews my faith in our way of life: People are becoming closer. That is damn refreshing, because we were becoming a socially dysfunctional society—spending so much time on cell phones that we weren’t talking to each other on cell phones. Everywhere I go now, people are getting together in kitchens, eating together, talking to each other, touching each other—some people are ending up living where they didn’t expect to before. People are getting closer to their families, which is something that was very common when I was younger, but gradually eroded. We are going to survive this crisis, but the strongest survival of all is the support of those we love.