As a boy, Thompson saw a movie about a riverboat gambler, and decided he wanted to be a cardsharp and started working on his skills. But “the truth began to dawn that no one wanted to play poker with a 12-year-old cardsharp,” he said later. But he already had developed some skills — especially palming cards, so he turned to magic instead, and was successful. At one gig, he was booked with comedians, and decided to add a comic element to his act. He debuted “The Great Tomsoni, the Wizard of Warsaw” in 1969, a spoof on magic acts. The audiences’ laughs would turn to gasps as he made “goofs” that would reveal amazing skill, like pulling a bowling ball out of a pile of scarves instead of a rabbit. Thompson became an expert on the techniques and history of magic, and was a magician’s magician — consulting for other pros. “If you were putting together an important magic show,” says Penn Jillette, “you would bring Johnny in. You would tell him what you wanted to do, and you would tell him your methods, and he’d have three others.” And he helped with the comedy. “He understood how to do a proper comic take, so he taught me physically how to do that,” said Penn’s partner, Teller, who doesn’t speak on stage. “He had broken it down into every single physical step” so he could get the laughs without saying a word.
When Penn Jillette’s daughter decided at 13 she wanted to be a magician, she went to Thompson to be taught the craft. “She said, ‘I don’t want my father,’” Penn said, choking up. “‘I want the man who teaches my father.’” Thompson died from respiratory failure in Las Vegas on March 9. He was 84.