Last Wednesday night, NBC premiered Phenomenon, a series touted as a "live search for the next great mentalist." Based on a similar Israeli show featuring controversial mentalist Uri Geller, Phenomenon returns tonight with a two-hour Halloween special (8 pm/ET). TVGuide.com recently spoke with Geller, who is a judge in the American version, along with magician/illusionist Criss Angel and a rotating slate of celebrity guests. Considering he still attests to having supernatural powers, we were also more than a little curious about how he’s survived years of being lambasted by critics.
TVGuide.com: For people who don’t know, can you explain exactly what it means to be a mentalist?
Uri Geller: My definition of a mentalist is someone who can play around with your mind psychologically. It’s different than a magician, who pulls a rabbit out of a hat or saws a woman in half. Mentalists have a mystification quality to them. Obviously, some mentalists blur the paranormal into their act. Some say, "I’m not only a mentalist, but I’m in touch with the other side" or "I have psychokinetic powers." It’s very difficult to know how much is true and how much is an illusion.
TVGuide.com: What kind of mentalists are the 10 contestants in Phenomenon?
Geller: Well, NBC has kept me and Criss Angel away from them, but during the dress rehearsal I have seen some of them and I was just mind-blown. Remember, I already did a version of this show in Israel. It was called The Successor. When NBC’s Ben Silverman was asked, "Why did you take a Uri Geller show? Uri Geller is steeped in controversy." He simply said, "When I watched The Successor, I got goose bumps."
TVGuide.com: Why do you think NBC paired you with Criss Angel for the American version?
Geller: Criss Angel is huge. He’s the No. 1 mystifier in the United States. There’s nobody bigger. When Ben said he was going to get Criss Angel, I said, "Dream on. These types of performers are booked years in advance." Ben said, "Let me do my magic." I guess he did.
TVGuide.com: What makes you and Criss a good pair?
Geller: Although Criss is a positive thinker and skilled and amazingly talented, he does not believe in the supernatural or the paranormal. I do. I believe in energies. I believe that everything in the universe is energy. Even our thought waves are energy. It has biological and biochemical properties. So I am open-minded in that arena. I believe in spirits and extrasensory perception.
TVGuide.com: So your opposing ideologies make you a good match?
Geller: Yes, but we’re both entertainers. I’ve been around longer than he has, but I can’t say I’ve seen everything. He would be an expert in technical illusions and magic. I want to look at the performer from a different perspective. I want to see how the performer manipulates his charisma, how he uses his character, whether he’s mesmerizing and likable and charming. If you can use your charisma, it doesn’t matter what you do, people will like you.
TVGuide.com: What can we expect from the Halloween special?
Geller: I think what will be special is that I will do an interactive work with people at home. This is what made me famous around the world. I looked into the camera and said, "Look, you people at home, you can do it. Try it yourself." I invented interactivity 40 years ago on television. There are some Halloween elements that I’d rather not talk about, but I can say that it will involve public participation. People will have something to do at home.
TVGuide.com: You’ve dealt with a lot of skeptics throughout your career. What's been your most effective defense?
Geller: Yes, I am very controversial. From the very beginning, magicians and scientists have tried to debunk me. In the early '70s, I was young and gullible and very naive. When I got to America, Johnny Carson invited me on his show. I thought to myself, "My goodness, I’ve made it." I didn’t realize I walked into a trap. They basically set me up. Nothing worked. The spoon bent very little and he made fun. I sat there for 22 minutes. It was humiliating. The only thought that went through my mind was, "Uri Geller, you’re finished." When I got back to my hotel room, I got a call from the front desk. The operator says, "Mr. Geller, I have Merv Griffin on the line." I thought she was kidding, but I picked up the phone and Merv said, "Uri Geller, I want you on my show." That’s when it dawned on me that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Oscar Wilde said there’s only one worse thing than being talked about and that’s not being talked about. So the skeptics right now are spitting blood, because here I am on NBC with Criss Angel.
TVGuide.com: Weren’t your critics just pointing out that you don’t have supernatural powers? They weren’t trying to destroy you personally.
Geller: Some skeptics, no doubt, were trying to destroy me. It was character assassination. I’ve had terrible things said about me. It has nothing to do with my powers. It was hatred and spite. But I should send them a bunch of flowers. They made the myth of Uri Geller.
TVGuide.com: So at this point, you’re OK with being associated with magic?
Geller: Absolutely. I don’t judge people by their profession. I’ve never claimed to be a magician, but I’m over that. I judge people by their kindness, friendliness and charisma.
Get an exclusive sneak peek at the CSI/Without a Trace crossover event in the Oct. 29 issue of TV Guide. Plus: The truth behind Oprah's health scare. Try four risk-free issues now!
Send your comments on this Q&A to email@example.com.