December 20, 1946, is the birthday of Uri Geller, who by his own claims is a psychic with powers given to him by extraterrestrials. His many debunkers claim he is a highly skilled illusionist and mentalist masquerading as someone in possession of supernatural abilities.
Geller, who has been on the scene since shortly after his release from the Israel Defense Forces following the Six-Day War, in which he was wounded, is still active as an entertainer. In recent years he has softened his claims somewhat, so that, he told one interviewer in 2007, “I'll no longer say that I have supernatural powers. I am an entertainer.”
Seeing the light
Uri Geller was born in Tel Aviv, in pre-state Palestine. His father was Izaak Geller, a Hungarian-born Jew who served as an NCO in what became the Israel Defense Forces, and his mother, the former Margaret Freud, was a Berlin-born Jew who, her son has said, was related to Sigmund Freud. His parents divorced when Uri was young, and when he was 11, he moved with his mother, who was known as Manzy, to Nicosia, Cyprus, after she married a Hungarian Jew who owned a B&B there.
Geller returned to Israel at age 16, and worked briefly in construction before enlisting in the Paratroopers. He was wounded in action during the 1967 war, and in the years that followed, he worked as a model, including for the local clothing manufacturer Ata.
Although he says that he first became aware of his special powers at age 5, when a bolt of light touched his forehead while he was in his backyard in Tel Aviv, it wasn’t until 1969 that he began sharing them with audiences in nightclubs in Israel.
He quickly became known for his telekinetic abilities, which included bending spoons and restarting watches that had stopped, supposedly just with the power of his mind. He also had a routine in which he described to audience members who had drawn an image on a sheet of paper, then sealed it in an envelope, just what they had drawn.
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Geller’s career, which had already gone international by the early 1970s, got a boost in 1974 when two parapsychologists at the Stanford Research Institute, in California – a non-profit organization loosely affiliated with Stanford University – tested his abilities under what were supposed to be controlled conditions that obviated the possibility of any fraud. Their conclusion, which they published in the prestigious British magazine Nature, was that Geller could know and do the things he did “by means of an as yet unidentified perceptual modality,” a fancy way of saying “extra-sensory powers.”
Debunked by a magician
To this day, Geller boasts of receiving a seal of approval from SRI, as well as having worked with a number of other academic institutions and security organizations that range from the U.S. Naval Surface Weapons Center to the CIA and Mossad.
For almost the same amount of time, the magician James Randi (who calls his stage act The Amazing Randi), whose ambitions include debunking other entertainers who claim to have supernatural abilities, has been going to lengths to demonstrate how everything Geller does can be accomplished by sleight of hand. When Geller was a guest on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” in 1976, Carson consulted Randi, without Geller’s knowledge, on how to prepare the set so that no cheating was possible. That night, a shaken-looking Uri Geller had to admit that his powers had failed him.
Embarrassing as that experience may have been, it didn’t hurt Geller’s career in any obvious way.
In the decades that followed, he claimed to receive million-dollar fees from various mining companies that employed his powers of divination to find mineral deposits. In the early 1980s he relocated to England and bought a mansion in the village of Sonning-on-Thames built to resemble the White House. He and his wife, the former Hannah Shtrang, raised two children there and in late 2015, they put the estate up for sale at an asking price of approximately $22 million. At the same time, they announced their intention to come home to Israel, and moved into a two-bedroom apartment they had bought a decade earlier in Jaffa.