By Suzanne Seixas

(MONEY Magazine) – The voice on the telephone answering machine had said it was ''an important call.'' But James Randi, the renowned magician and exposer of pseudopsychics, had a more pressing matter -- an appointment with his dentist in Fort Lauderdale. Before settling into the dentist's chair, however, he dialed his mystery caller from the waiting room phone. With a dazed expression on his face, Randi listened for a few minutes, stammered his thanks, hung up and remarked, ''I've been given $272,000.'' ''Good,'' the dentist said as he readied his drill. ''Now you can pay my bill.'' But Randi wasn't kidding. The 58-year-old professional prestidigitator, who lives in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Sunrise, had just joined the 25 men and women chosen in July to become fellows of the MacArthur Foundation. Until the summer of 1991, he will get a tax-free $54,400 a year that can be spent however he likes and cannot be attached by creditors. ''I'm planning to call all my credit-card companies and jeer, 'N-yah, n-yah, n-yah, you can't touch it,' '' quips Randi. Dubbed ''genius awards'' because they often go to hard-to-categorize nonconformists in the arts and sciences, the fellowships have been handed out to 191 academics, activists and artists since 1981 by a Chicago foundation endowed by the late insurance magnate John MacArthur. The grants provide a spell of financial independence so the recipients can pursue what the foundation calls ''socially relevant'' work, often in obscure or unconventional fields. Billed as the Amazing Randi, the new MacArthur fellow was singled out in recognition of his crusade to expose phony psychics and fake faith healers. ''They gull people into believing in the irrational,'' he says. ''Once you fall for that, you can lose control of your life.'' Randi regularly writes magazine articles, lectures around the world and puts on demonstrations to unmask such supernaturalists as Israeli psychic Uri Geller. With his skills as a magician, Randi has shown that the examples of their alleged telepathic powers -- spoon bending, mind reading, table tipping -- are only tricks of the illusionist's trade. Because the first of his MacArthur checks is already in the mail, Randi feels an urgent need for financial advice. He wants to use the money to expand his efforts to expose paranormal swindlers, fund two philanthropies and still assure himself of a steady income to supplement his erratic earnings as a performer. ''If I'm to meet all my objectives, I can't take any risks with the money,'' he frets, ''and yet I've got to invest it for growth.'' But achieving risk- free growth is one trick that's not in his repertoire, for he has never invested before. His inexperience is caused not only by a lack of interest in financial matters but also by the fact that he has had little excess income up to now. ''My income goes up and down like a toilet seat,'' he says of revenues that gyrate from $54,000 to $30,000 a year. Even in good years, professional expenses for travel and equipment may eat up 30% to 40% of his earnings, leaving him sometimes pinched though not particularly fazed. ''My cash flow usually covers my costs,'' he observes, ''and when it doesn't, I'm able to borrow a few thousand dollars from the bank.'' The son of a telephone company executive and a homemaker in Toronto, James Randi began studying magic as a precocious 12-year-old after seeing a performance by the famed master of legerdemain, Harry Blackstone Sr. The conjurer's art became a consuming interest for the intellectually gifted but lonely child who felt awkwardly out of sync with everyone he knew. When he turned 17, Randi signed on as a magician-mentalist with a tent show and traveled through Canada's Maritime Provinces. Later he worked in Montreal nightclubs. By the 1950s he was in the U.S., where he has become an established entertainer, if not quite a household name. Randi began his campaign against fakes in earnest in 1964, during a stint as the host of a radio talk show in Manhattan. He had become disturbed by the number of listeners phoning in with such flummery as tales of self-styled clairvoyants' uncannily correct forecasts. Gradually, his work as a debunker began to rival his show-business career, gathering momentum in the early 1970s, when Uri Geller caught Randi's attention. The Israeli had attracted a large following -- and even some serious attention from scientists at the respected Stanford Research Institute -- with his claim to be a legitimate psychic. As evidence, he performed feats of mind reading and psychokinesis, which is the supposed ability to move or bend objects without touching them. To discredit him, Randi duplicated Geller's best-known stunts and showed how they could have been done. He set clocks ahead or bent spoons manually after diverting his audience's attention and activated a Geiger counter with a piece of radioactive material taped to his leg. Undeterred by a flood of hate mail from incensed devotees of spiritualism, Randi went on to do battle with the occultists for whom he reserves his fiercest condemnation: psychic healers. ''They lure people into discontinuing necessary medical treatment in favor of the latest miracles,'' he says. ''That's dangerous to people's lives.'' Pressing his cause globally, Randi has traveled abroad to demonstrate the sleight of hand by which psychic surgeons pull tumors -- actually chicken guts -- from patients' bodies. One of his principal targets currently is Peter Popoff, an ordained minister and a faith healer from Upland, Calif. whose techniques Randi finds strikingly transparent. With zest, he recounts how he and some volunteers attended a series of Popoff healing services and gradually discovered how Popoff worked his miracles. Before the devotions began, the volunteers would tail the minister's wife as she roamed among the assembly, quizzing people about their afflictions and loudly repeating their answers while bending down toward her purse. ''We figured she had a transmitter or tape recorder in it,'' says Randi. Then Mrs. Popoff would rejoin her husband backstage. Randi recalls what happened next: ''Popoff came out to start his ministrations, and eventually I spotted the hidden ear receiver that he was wearing. As he worked the crowd, we surmised that his wife was watching him on a TV monitor backstage because we overheard her feed him information about who had what ailment. At the same time I picked her up on a frequency that I located on a radio receiver and recorded. But of course the afflicted thought Popoff's knowledge came from God.'' Popoff refused to comment when Money asked him about Randi's charges.

A bachelor (''Remember, I'm an escape artist''), Randi is quick-witted and entertaining offstage as well as on, peppering his voluble conversation with conundrums, puns and jokes. He works out of his three-bedroom colonial house amid clutter that includes extensive collections of videotapes showing psychics at work; pre-Columbian ceramic figurines from Peru that, as an amateur archaeologist, he dug up himself; and colorful folk masks from many of the countries where he has performed. Garish posters advertising his act (sample: THE AMAZING RANDI, LEVITATION OF A LIVING WOMAN), a human skull on a cabinet shelf in the living room, a life-size plaster statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III and a bust of the great escape artist Harry Houdini attest to Randi's career as a conjurer. But upstairs in his office, his AT&T PC 300 personal computer and well-organized files on the investigations he is conducting bespeak the crusader. Spreading the wealth He plans to use his MacArthur money to extend the office and build a backyard studio, which contractors estimate will cost $35,000. An assistant will go on the payroll too, ''to do legwork for me, like checking out the flimflam artists around the country,'' Randi explains. Since the assistant will be working under cover, Randi declines to describe whom he will choose. At times, though, he may employ one of the sorcerer's apprentices with whom he has a longstanding practice of sharing his house. Young men, eager to learn his art, often show up on his doorstep, many of them from countries where he has toured. He teaches them magic for free, ''my reward coming when they go out and represent the trade well,'' he says. Randi would also like to stretch his stipend to be able to fund an annual $15,000 scholarship for a high school student who writes the best essay critically examining a claimant to supernatural power. ''I'm trying to get kids at an age when they're most impressed by cults and psychics,'' he says. And he is eager to step up his contributions to his favorite charity, the Foster Parents Plan, which assists needy children overseas. Although he has never been much of a saver, Randi has a small nest egg from the 1984 sale of a house in Rumson, N.J. that he bought in the affluent days ! of his early career. The house fetched $140,000, and after paying off the mortgage and closing costs, he moved with the proceeds to Florida in the spring of 1985, ''because you don't have to shovel rain.'' There he paid $82,000 for his house in Sunrise and salted away $22,000 in certificates of deposit and a money-market account. Randi also keeps a check for $10,000 in a clear plastic envelope. For more than two decades he has offered it to anyone who can perform a truly paranormal feat. So far, some 75 people have tried to collect the prize, ''but it has never been safer,'' he boasts. Since becoming a MacArthur fellow, Randi is on a roll. His latest expose, The Faith Healers, will be brought out by Prometheus Books in January, after which he will take a new magic show on the road. And he is meeting with some TV production companies that are interested in doing specials on him. ''It's great,'' he comments. ''MacArthur gave me some money, so now everybody else wants to throw it at me too.'' But then he turns sober. ''The foundation sent me an article in which a former recipient wrote, 'Everything's coming to an end now that my five years are up -- it's like a death sentence.' '' Randi adds: ''That really gave me the chills, because I saw what could happen if I don't invest properly. I too could be left with nothing.'' BOX: A generous genie Although James Randi has had lean periods prior to winning his MacArthur grant, he has continued to put up itinerant magicians and has also lent needy friends about $12,000, ''of which I doubt more than half will be repaid,'' he says. Surprisingly, he had no requests for money after his award was announced, ''just people calling to ask how they could get nominated and if I'd recommend them.'' Income and outgo for the 12 months that ended July 31: Income James Randi's earnings $29,460 Interest 395 Tax refunds 300 Total $30,155 Outgo Business expenses $9,960 Taxes 4,160 Moving costs 2,500 Projection TV 2,200 Individual Retirement Account contribution 2,000 Utilities 1,860 Meals at home 1,540 Car expenses 1,284 House guests 750 Medical expenses 600 Furniture 575 Clothes 550 Lawyer's fee 400 Miscellaneous 395 Household maintenance 360 Homeowners insurance 276 Foster Parents Plan contribution 264 Unreimbursed car collision costs 200 Professional dues 146 Gifts 135 Total $30,155 Assets (as of July 31, 1986) House $83,000 Savings 22,000 Personal property 18,000 Business equipment 17,500 IRA 6,600 Debts receivable 6,000 1984 Chrysler Laser 5,800 Checking account 600 Total $159,500 Liabilities Credit-card balance $500 Total $500 Net Worth $159,000