John Edward Szeles, the comedian and magician who combined jokes with ersatz gore in his stage persona as the Amazing Johnathan, died on Tuesday at his home in Henderson, Nev., outside Las Vegas. He was 63.
His death was confirmed by Michael Peters, a funeral arranger at Palm Cheyenne Mortuary in Las Vegas, who said that Mr. Szeles’s hospice care report showed he had end-stage heart failure.
Mr. Szeles’s wife, Anastasia Synn, a magician and performer, had said on Twitter that he had been under hospice care.
In 2014, Mr. Szeles said that he consulted doctors after he began feeling dizzy and out of breath. He learned he had heart disease, with doctors telling him he had 12 to 15 months to live
Death “didn’t happen,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 2018. “I waited another year, and then it was another year. I was sitting and waiting around so I went back to work.”
Mr. Szeles, who described himself as the “Freddy Krueger of comedy,” deftly mixed genres in his routines. In one act in the 1990s, he incorporated harmless vaudevillian jokes, like one in which he complained about a mole on his neck, then turned his back to the audience to reveal a stuffed rodent. Minutes later, he pretended to slice off his own arm, and to cut out his own eye and eat it.
In an interview in 1998, Mr. Szeles said he initially wanted to be a magician but had to add comedy to his act because “my magic was so inept.”
His father, a draftsman, did not want him “to become anything normal,” he said, and supported his ambitions to become an entertainer.
“He wanted me to go for comedy, for entertaining,” Mr. Szeles said. “I think he kind of lived through me.”
John Edward Szeles was born on Sept. 9, 1958, in Detroit, the youngest of three children of Doreen Szeles and Edward Szeles, who designed tanks and military equipment. The family moved to Fraser, Mich., where John attended Bethlehem Lutheran School and Fraser High School. He was a below-average student, according to a biography on his website.
He started as a street performer in San Francisco in the 1970s, honing his act on Fisherman’s Wharf. He became so popular that crowds would spill onto the street.
Mr. Szeles then moved on to work at nightclubs and colleges in the 1980s, performing before President Ronald Reagan in 1986. By the 1990s, he had gained a large cult following after appearances on Comedy Central.
By 2001, Mr. Szeles had stopped touring and took up a two-year residency at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. He remained in the city, performing regularly for 13 years, according to his website.
Then, during a performance in 2014, he told the audience that he had a year to live. The announcement came after more than 10 minutes of jokes about his early years as a performer and lighthearted stories about his upbringing in Michigan. Some in the audience believed he was still joking and tittered.
“It’s not a joke,” he said, then he began crying. “It’s very scary. My heart is failing.”
“I can’t do shows anymore,” he added, “because my legs lock up and my hands lock up” — a catastrophic scenario for a magician, he said.
He said he had retired and had put his “affairs in order.”
His illness did not stunt his proclivity for pranks and dark humor.
In “The Amazing Johnathan Documentary,” a 2019 documentary, Mr. Szeles appeared to be toying with the filmmaker, Ben Berman, as he began following Mr. Szeles after he announced he was sick.
The film shows Mr. Szeles smoking methamphetamine, giving access to competing documentarians and behaving so unpredictably that Mr. Berman questioned whether Mr. Szeles even had a terminal illness.
Mr. Szeles “is up to something cruel and self-serving but, for the purposes of our absorption, clever, too,” the critic Wesley Morris wrote in a review of the film for The Times. “Szeles becomes Berman’s adversary. They’re both going to make this movie, no matter what, in Berman’s case, Szeles throws at him.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Szeles is survived by two sisters, Nancy Rogers and Gail Maguire.
Mr. Szeles performed sporadically through 2019, according to his website, which listed performances in Boston, Utah and Britain.
In 2017, he appeared at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle in Royal Oak, Mich. In an interview with the news site MLive.com, he described how he still performed a “floating zombie ball” trick that had been part of his act since he was 16.
“That’s never left my show,” Mr. Szeles said. “I haven’t found a better ending.”
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