Tuesday, June 26, 2012

AN INTERVIEW WITH RICH LITTLE, MASTER IMPERSONATOR

LAUGH A LOT OR A “LITTLE”:

An Interview with Rich Little, the Man of A Thousand Voices, as he brings his one-man show to the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla for one night only

By Donnie Matsuda


Master mimic Rich Little has had an impressive career spanning over 50 years and including impersonations of over 200 people.  This Canadian-born impressionist (who recently became a U.S. citizen in 2010) currently resides in Las Vegas but tours the country with his one-man comedy shows in which he lampoons everyone from U.S. Presidents (John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and both George Bushes) to famous actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood) to Baby-Boomer friendly characters (Edith Bunker, Kermit the Frog, Robin Leach and Dr. Ruth Westheimer). 

While in his 20’s, Little was discovered after submitting an audition tape of himself doing impersonations (what else!?!) to The Judy Garland Show.  Ms. Garland thought he was great and he was immediately signed to the show.  He continued to make appearances on TV variety shows, including Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Glen Campbell, and Dean Martin, and on such TV series as Laugh-In, The John Davidson Summer Show, and The Julie Andrews Show.  Named “Comedy Star of the Year” by the American Guild of Variety Artists, Little has been the perpetrator of nine comedy albums and three HBO comedy specials, and was the host of his own variety show in the 70’s.  

Rich Little and Judy Garland.  Photo courtesy of www.richlittle.com.
Now touring the country with his two one-man shows – his stage play “Jimmy Stewart and Friends” and his nightclub act “Laugh A Little” – Little seems to have found another way in which to show off his comedic chops and impress with his penchant for spot-on imitations.  Recently, as he was in between his recent Welk Theatre run of his Jimmy Stewart play and his upcoming night act at the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla, I had the chance to chat with Little and we talked about everything from his favorite impersonations to his extracurricular hobbies to what he enjoys most about his profession.

DONNIE: When did you first learn you had this gift of doing impressions of other people?

RICH: When I imitated my teachers at school and then saw the other kids laughing.  They thought it was great and I became very popular doing it because the poor teacher didn’t know I was doing them.  If they’d ask me a question, I’d usually answer it in their voice and it was usually the wrong answer  - so that even got a bigger reaction. 

DONNIE: How do you come up with ideas for new people to impersonate?

RICH: It must be somebody I’m interested in.  It helps if I like them.  You won’t see me doing Bill Maher at any time.  It has to be people that I watch a lot, that fascinate me.  I have to watch them quite a bit to get the mannerisms.  Sometimes it comes, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s tougher these days to impersonate people because we don’t have the voices that we used to in the past.

Rich performs at the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino in 2012.  Photo courtesy of Scott Harrison.
DONNIE: Over the years, approximately how many people have you done impressions of? 

RICH: I’d say roughly around 200.

DONNIE: Which one is your favorite? 

RICH: I have a couple of favorites.  I like Ronald Reagan because I knew him so well and spent a lot of time with him.  Same with Jimmy Stewart.  We were good friends.  I think they’re two of my best.

DONNIE: Which one is the most challenging?

RICH: Probably the one I can’t do.  <chuckle>  There are a lot of people I can’t impersonate.  I do a very bad Brad Pitt.  I don’t do George Clooney.  I don’t do Matt Damon.  And I don’t think anybody will.  

DONNIE: Which one do you think is the funniest?

RICH: The one I get the most reaction from is probably Andy Rooney of “60 Minutes” because they’re all short little jokes.  If I do Andy Rooney for 3 minutes, I can get maybe 20 laughs.  Whereas some voices maybe just one joke and one laugh.  So Andy Rooney, Johnny Carson and Paul Lynde - those kinds of people I get a lot of laughter from.

Rich and his 2005 Star on Las Vegas Blvd.  He also has a star on the Canadian Walk of Fame and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Photo courtesy of www.richlittle.com.
DONNIE: Any current celebrities you would like to impersonate? 

RICH: Well yeah.  I’d like to do a lot of current movie stars.  But I think there are a lot of current movie stars that are impossible to do because they don’t have distinctive voices like they did back in the 40s and the 50s and so very few current movie stars can be imitated today.

DONNIE: Any impersonations currently in the works?

RICH: Yes.  Mitt Romney’s in the works.  I’m working on him, taping him a lot, and trying to get some of his mannerisms.  I think it’ll come.   I don’t know whether it’ll be a great impression, but I think it’s one everybody expects me to do because he’s going to be our next president.

DONNIE: I understand that you have put your talent to use filling in for celebrities’ voices on soundtrack and film.  Tell me more.

RICH: I’ve dubbed for people that have lost their voice or have passed on, like Peter Sellers -Inspector Clouseau and David Niven for a couple of movies - Pink Panther movies.   I filled in for Gene Kelly when he lost his voice for a Christmas special.  And Tony Curtis for a movie he walked off on.  I did his voice.  And Stacey Keach one time for Mike Hammer.  I did him.   I’ve done a fair amount of that over the years.

DONNIE: What is it you enjoy most about your profession? 

RICH: The fact that I’m able to make people laugh and have a good time.  Help them forget their problems.  Just bring a little joy into somebody’s, perhaps, humdrum life. 

Rich Little performs at The Riviera Starlite Theater in 2011.  Photo courtesy of Stardust Fallout.
DONNIE: Do you have other talents and hobbies you indulge in? 

RICH: I’ve always sketched.  I’ve been an artist since I was 12.  I work in charcoal and do portraits.  I’ve got hundreds and hundreds.  I started out doing my family and gave them away.  Then I moved on to celebrities and gave a lot of those away…and neighbors and all kinds of people.  I sell authenticated replications of the celebrities I’ve done on my website and at some of my shows, but I have probably in my collection today about 60 originals.

DONNIE: You were most recently seen here in San Diego doing your show “Jimmy Stewart and Friends” at the Welk in Escondido.  Why did you choose Jimmy Stewart as your prime target?

RICH: Because I knew Jimmy quite well.  I knew him better than almost any person I impersonate.  I spent a lot of time with him, did a lot of charities with him, worked the Dean Martin roasts with him, did the Julie Andrews show with him, as well as some socializing.  So I got to know him and his career pretty good.  When I went to do a one man show, he seemed to be the ideal choice; not only knowing him, but because he worked with so many great movie stars of the past that I impersonate.

DONNIE: Now you are returning to San Diego in “Laugh A Little” at the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla.  How will this show be different than your Jimmy Stewart show?

RICH: My nightclub act is a lot different.  It has varied segments to it.  I’m doing a game show at the moment with various celebrities competing (<sneeze> “That was me sneezing as John Wayne…Achoo!”) And the show is just different because it’s a lot of impressions just thrown together with no real theme.  It isn’t a play like Jimmy Stewart and I do a lot of singing impressions which I don’t do in “Jimmy Stewart and Friends.”  I do Tom Jones and I do Neil Diamond.  I do Willie Nelson, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett, so there are a lot of singers.  People like the music, like the songs and if the impression is good, they’ll react.  These are all the singers I grew up with.  You won’t find me doing any rock stars….now or ever!

Promotional graphic for Rich's show "Laugh A Little" at the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla.  Image courtesy of the JCC.
DONNIE: In the promo materials for “Laugh A Little” it says there will be a live band.  How will that work?
           
RICH: I will do a lot of singing and the band will also play catch themes and punctuate certain jokes.  I used to, back in the 60s and 70s, work with a 30-piece orchestra.  Today I’m working with four pieces: bass, drums, guitar and piano, of course.  It’s not as great as a big, full orchestra, but one has to cut down with the economy so bad.  Theaters don’t want to pay for a large orchestra anymore.  If the economy gets any worse, I may just be working with piano.  Who knows?  Or maybe a harmonica!  <chuckle>  I think the days of the big orchestras are pretty well over, with the exception of  somebody like a Tony Bennett or Johnny Mathis or somebody that can afford a huge orchestra.  But I’d say most acts today have reduced the size of their band mainly because of cost.

DONNIE: Last but not least, is it “impressions” or “impersonations” that you do?  Or is it simply a question of semantics? 

RICH: I always say I don’t do impressions.  Van Gogh, Monet…they do impressions.  I do impersonations.  But yes, it’s pretty much just semantics.  The terms “impressions” and “impersonations” are often used interchangeably when describing what I do.

Things to know before you go:  San Diego Center for Jewish Culture’s Look & Listen Performing Arts Series presents “Laugh Out Loud with Comedian Rich Little” on Saturday, June 30 at 8pm in the David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre at 4126 Executive Drive in La Jolla, CA.  Tickets are $35-$42.  For more information and to purchase tickets, call the box office at 858-362-1348 (open 9am-5pm, Monday through Friday) or visit http://www.lfjcc.org/.

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