80s Televangelist Peter Popoff Returns After Scandal

Popoff had been the best at what he did—the boldest and baddest, the most don't-give-a-damn cheesy. He dared you to doubt him, which helped insulate him from charges that he was a fraud. With a promise to heal the sick, Popoff convened huge crowds, where he relied on a shtick that involved calling out the name and ailment of someone in the audience he had never met, as if God had just vouchsafed him the information. “I'm looking for an Ada Mae, and I know that she has kidney problems! Where are you, Ada Mae?”—that sort of thing. (Steve Martin borrowed this bit of Popoff's routine for his 1992 flick Leap of Faith, and Chevy Chase had fun at Popoff's expense in Fletch Lives.)

But a key component of his act eventually spelled his downfall. In 1986, a team of freelance debunkers, including the magician James Randi, took a radio scanner to a Popoff revival, where they overheard Popoff 's wife, Liz, feeding him names and illnesses. Apparently, plants in the audience would chat people up or get them to jot down details, then feed their information to Liz, who passed it on to her husband through an earpiece. Listening through the gizmo in his ear, Popoff would call out to the crowd as if he possessed the omniscience of the Lord.

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