Little tells how to make a big impression
By Paul Greenberg
LA JOLLA, California — Impressionist/impersonator extraordinaire Rich Little, with a repertoire of more than 200 wide-ranging voices and counting, isn’t Jewish but he sure has a Jewish sense of humor. Asked in a recent phone interview from Las Vegas, where he currently resides and where he has lived intermittently for almost 40 years, whether he was Jewish, he replied, “No, but if I were, I would be named Littleberg.”
To baby boomers, he is probably best-known and fondly remembered for his appearances on TV variety shows starring Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Glen Campbell, and Dean Martin, as well as the comedy show, Laugh-In. Little (with some of his assorted impressions) guest hosted on the Johnny Carson Show 12 times, and more recently played Carson in the HBO movie, Late Shift. He quickly became a household name sitting in one of the Hollywood Squares, and later did the Muppet Show. To a lesser extent, he is also remembered for his dramatic guest shots on Fantasy Island, Chips, Hawaii Five-0, MacGyver, Police Woman, and Mannix. Little has also appeared on the daytime soaps The Young and the Restless and Santa Barbara.
Little brought his one-man tour de force of straight and singing impressions and his four man back-up band (bass, guitar, drums, and piano/keyboard ) to the David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre at the JCC in La Jolla on the evening of June 30th. The performance was part of the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture’s Look and Listen Performing Arts Series and was made possible through the extreme generosity of sponsor Mickey Stern, with special thanks to Roz Dermer.
Playing to a sold-out crowd at the 500-seat theatre, a significant portion of the 90 minute performance was devoted to the impressionist posing game-show-like questions to the people he would (then) impersonate (To Dr. Phil: What is the difference between unlawful and illegal? Reply: “Unlawful is against the law, illegal is just a sick bird.”) He used that format for impressions of Paul Lynde, Jimmy Carter, Jack Nicholson, Jack Lemmon and Walter Mathau, Jimmy Stewart and George Burns. He had his dead-on impersonation of Andy Rooney posing only questions that Rooney would contemplate (“Why do they sterilize the needle when they kill prisoners?; Why do they put an expiration date on sour cream?”). Johnny Carson’s impression was most impressive when Little took on the persona of Carnac the Magnificent, with his pianist/keyboardist asking the questions. He also did impressions of the two Presidents Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama (“I want to be president in the worst way. Mission accomplished!”), a hard-of-hearing Ronald Reagan (Reagan was his best fan.”He fell down in laughter once Nancy explained the jokes.”), and the classic and still hilarious Richard Nixon.
Backed by his band, the maestro performed his singing impersonations of Johnny Cash (fantastic), Willie Nelson, Cochise, Tony Bennett, Tom Jones ( with his exaggerated gyrations), Neil Diamond, and the always popular Frank Sinatra.and Sammy Davis Jr.
I got the impression (no pun intended), based on the audience applause and comments I overhead afterwards, that they got what they came for: masterful celebrity impressions and singing impressions, and doses of political and satirical humor from the greatest impressionist of at least the 20th Century.
A private reception for underwriters was held after the performance in the Gotthelf Art Gallery, with Mr. Little quite accessible to those who wanted to talk to him and take photos of him or with him. In the middle of a table set up in the room was a beautiful floral arrangement surrounded by scrumptious pastries catered by Girard Gourmet..
Born in Canada and a United States citizen since 2010, his first professional appearances were in a small club in Canada. “I got booked into this place in Quebec, and when I started my act I discovered that no one in the audience understood English. It was strictly a French-speaking audience.” He quickly concluded his act was dead until an inspiration hit him. “I did walks. Jack Benny’s walk, Bob Hope’s walk, John Wayne’s walk. They all walk in the same language,” he recalls.
Actually, the unconventional start to his brilliant and long-lasting career can be traced back to when he was 12 years old and began answering back to his teachers in their own voices. To get dates, he would discover a girl’s favorite actor, and call her and imitate that actor’s voice. When Little would show up, he’d tell the girl the actor he was imitating couldn’t show up. This stopped when a girl told him her favorite was Porky Pig.
Little got his big break in the United States by performing on the Judy Garland Show. His friend, singer Mel Torme, then on the musical team of the show, asked him to make a tape. Instead of the usual impressions, he did voices nobody else did, including Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Dennis Weaver. Garland thought his impressions were great, and was particularly impressed with his James Mason, and he was signed to do the show.
There is one requirement for including an impression in Little’s repertoire. “It has to be somebody that is known, through television or movies, somebody that is high profile, the most commercial ones. There is no point imitating character actors you like that are hardly even remembered. You have to pick people who reach a majority of people in your audience.”
He also tries out new material in smaller venues before including it in performances in larger ones. “I am doing a play on the life of Jimmy Stewart ( Jimmy Stewart and Friends) and the first couple of years I did it on the road, and now I am doing it in Vegas regularly, and by the time I hit Vegas I knew it worked. It is great to go out to smaller venues and try out new material, And if it works, I put it it into my act and use it in more important venues. If you do an hour and a half performance, and you have a couple of new impressions and jokes and they don’t work, it doesn’t ruin your whole show. It just means for a couple of minutes it was only mediocre. I am always testing and trying out new material and sometimes it just doesn’t work.”
Little is currently working on an impression of Mitt Romney. “I am listening to him and trying to get the rhythm of his voice. It is a very difficult voice to do because it is not too distinctive. Mitt Romney is tough to do because he looks like the All-American father, doesn’t he? He looks like Leave It to Beaver’s father, he is Mr. America, the good looks, and that masculine voice, no stutter, no lisp, no hesitation. I was pulling for Ron Paul to win the primary because he was terrific. I picked him up in five minutes. Newt Gingrich, I can do him a bit.”
He primarily takes into account the age of the audience he will be playing to when deciding which impressions to perform. “It depends on what age group you are playing to. If I’m drawing an older crowd, and I usually do, I can go back to the 50′s and 40′s. If I’m playing to a younger people, it is a lot more difficult. When I entertained the troops in Germany and Italy, they loved the humor and jokes, but they didn’t know any of the voices. It helps if you know who I am imitating because I perform to a generation that grew up with me. I tend to do the voices of the past, which are the best voices to do anyway because voices of film stars, particularly of today, are pretty impossible to do. I grew up on George Burns. It is a very physical impression. You have to hunch over, you have to do the thing with the mouth, and the squinting of the eyes, and the glasses and the cigar, and the hesitation and mumbling that he does. It is a great impression to do because it is great voice-wise plus visually it is perfect for me. Some people you do, you just have to do the voice. There is no way I’m going to look like Dr. Phil. Some are strictly voice, some are voice and body language, and it varies. It (doing impressions) is a dying art.”
Rich Little is most proud of winning an Emmy for doing a Christmas Carol in the 1970′s. “I also have my walk of star in four different cities (Canadian Walk of Fame, Palm Springs Walk of Fame, Las Vegas Walk of Fame, and Hollywood Walk of Fame), and not too many people do that.” He has also been named “Comedy Star of the Year” by the American Guild of Variety Artists.
Little established the Rich and Marie Foundation to help animals and humans in need. “My late wife Marie was very much into animals, very into helping people, very into causes, and we formed a corporation to try and help children and battered women and cancer and heart disease, but mostly animals. She was a tremendous animal lover. The foundation is mostly to help cats and dogs. I give a lot to that cause.”
Little is currently touring the country with his one-man show, Jimmy Stewart and Friends, which features 27 characters, ranging from Lionel Barrymore to Ronald Reagan.
Paul Greenberg is a freelance writer in San Diego. Yvonne Greenberg assisted in the preparation of this article.
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