When Teller was in high school, [a teacher] read a short story to those few students before him, including an enraptured Teller: "Enoch Soames," by Max Beerbohm, written in 1916.
In the story, Beerbohm relates the tragic tale of Soames, a dim, hopeless writer with delusions of future grandeur. In the 1890s, Beerbohm recounts, Soames made a deal with the devil: In exchange for his soul, Soames would be magically transported one hundred years into the future — to precisely 2:10 P.M. on June 3, 1997 — into the Round Reading Room at the British Museum. There, he could look at the shelves and through the catalogs and marvel at his inevitable success. When Soames makes his trip, however, he learns that time has almost erased him before the devil has had the chance. He is listed only as a fictional character in a short story by Max Beerbohm.
Thirty-four-and-a-half years after that snowy reading by his satanic-looking teacher... Teller flew to England ahead of June 3, 1997.
As it turned out, there were about a dozen people in the Round Reading Room that afternoon... And at ten past two, they gasped when they saw a man appear mysteriously out of the stacks, looking confused as he scanned empty catalogs and asked unhelpful librarians about his absence from the files. The man looked just like the Soames of Teller's teenage imagination, "a stooping, shambling person, rather tall, very pale, with longish and brownish hair," and he was dressed in precise costume, a soft black hat and a gray waterproof cape. The man did everything Enoch Soames did in Max Beerbohm's short story, floating around the pin-drop-quiet room before he once again disappeared into the shelves.
And all the while, Teller watched with a small smile on his face. He didn't tell anyone that he might have looked through hundreds of pages in casting books before he had found the perfect actor. He didn't tell anyone that he might have visited Angels & Bermans, where he had found just the right soft black hat and gone through countless gray waterproof capes. He didn't tell anyone that he might have had an inside friend who helped him stash the actor and his costume behind a hidden door in the stacks. Even when Teller later wrote about that magical afternoon for The Atlantic, he didn't confess his role. He never has.
"Taking credit for it that day would be a terrible thing — a terrible, terrible thing," Teller says. "That's answering the question that you must not answer."
Now, again, his voice leaves him. That afternoon took something close to actual sorcery, following years of anticipation and planning. But more than anything, it required a man whose love for magic is so deep he can turn deception into something beautiful.
Liked what you read? I am available for hire.