When Rich Little Speaks, He Really Makes An Impression—just Ask Cary, Frank, Carol, Jimmy, Dick and Ron

updated 03/28/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/28/1983 01:00AM

It's a good thing Ronald Reagan has a sense of humor. A few months ago the President heard about a 29-year-old unemployed New Yorker who had jumped onto a subway track to save a blind man who had fallen. President Reagan phoned the Good Samaritan, Reginald Andrews, to congratulate him. Recalls Andrews, "I thought it was Rich Little at first." Later Reagan called to put in a good word for him with Edward Marbach, a frozen foods exec who had interviewed Andrews for a job. Says Marbach, "I thought the President was Little too. I really did."

That Rich Little has so ingrained himself in the American psyche is but one measure of his talent, which is no less astonishing for being so familiar. During his 25-year career as an impressionist, Little has become the Man of a Thousand Voices. His skill sometimes has unusual uses. When the producers of the Pink Panther movies decided to continue the lucrative series after Peters Sellers' death, they called on Little to provide the actor's voice in the opening scene of the upcoming Curse of the Pink Panther. Why not? Earlier, Little had performed a similar feat for David Niven, Sellers' co-star in Trail of the Pink Panther. Reportedly suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, Niven cannot speak clearly at times, so Little, sources report, came to the rescue in redubbing sessions. Apparently, not one critic noticed the substitution.

But Little, at 44, is not content to rest on his Laurels, Hardys, Bogeys and other dead-ringer impressions. He is constantly adding new ones to his repertoire and finding innovative ways to use them. For instance, on Rich Little's Robin Hood, an HBO special this month, he goes into full makeup to portray Maid Marian a la Carol Channing, Little John as John Wayne, Robin as Groucho Marx, and so on. Declares Rich, "People say, 'I know that was you doing Groucho, but who did Jimmy Stewart?' " Similarly, three years ago he be-Littled Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and the show has been repeated every Yuletide. He recently filmed a dramatic role for NBC's CHiPs ("People will say, 'What, no John Wayne?' "), but he is so identified with other people's voices that when he tried to do a few songs himself during his Las Vegas act, the audience wouldn't buy it. "One man said to his wife, 'Who's that?' " Rich recalls, "and she said, 'That's Rich Little.' Then he said, 'Can't be. It doesn't sound like him.' "

Luckily, Little revels in his ability to sound like almost anyone but himself. In a single two-hour conversation, he broke into 30 other voices, ranging from Orson Welles to Tootsie. He recently agreed to do 125 voices for a new line of telephone answering machine tapes. He also writes most of his material, endlessly trying out new lines on road manager and former comedian Mel Bishop, until he finds jokes that fit the characters as closely as do his voices. In his Reagan guise, he will announce at a mock press conference that he's found a solution to the energy crisis: "We're going to build a pipeline to the sun." Then he becomes a reporter: "You'd get burnt up before you got the pipeline halfway there." Then, as Reagan again: "No, we thought about that, and we're going to build the pipeline at night."

Little calls that kind of political humor "dumb," as opposed to the barbs he delivered when he was younger. In 1967 he was publicly attacked, and lost at least one booking, for doing an impression of Lyndon Johnson singing Something Stupid (the something was the war in Vietnam). Now, he says, he avoids controversial material, even though it means fewer college bookings. At the same time, he has made fans of his subjects: He impersonated Reagan at the President's inauguration, and he once played Nixon to the ex-President's face at a San Clemente party. Luckily, says Rich, "He couldn't figure out who I was doing."

Richard Caruthers Little, who was born in Ottawa, says he has "never done impressions because I was unhappy with the real me." Indeed, his childhood wasn't poor and ethnic—the usual comedian's grist—but WASP and upper-middle-class. One of three sons of a doctor (his oldest brother now does cartoon voices in Canada), Little cracked up his grade school classmates by answering his teachers' questions in their own voices.

By the time he graduated from high school, he was sufficiently professional to skip college altogether. As a Toronto radio host, he once impersonated Elvis Presley so convincingly that 500 fans besieged the station. Though he became a regular on Canadian radio and TV, Rich says, he believed for years what people had always told him—that "it was impossible to make it big only doing impressions." But in 1964 singer Mel Tormé discovered him and persuaded Judy Garland to book him on her CBS variety series. Judy first saw him during the live broadcast, and her look of genuine amazement helped secure his reputation.

He has had setbacks since then. His three movie outings have been flops, and his TV series—1966's Love on a Rooftop, 1972's The Kopycats and 1975's The Rich Little Show—have all been short-lived. Now, under what he considers unreasonably commercial regimes, he complains the networks "don't want my specials unless they've got Bob Hope and Loni Anderson."

Still, Little adds about a dozen new impressions a year, which he learns by studying videotapes of movies and TV shows, then taping his imitations. The trick, he says, is that "you don't have to be letter-perfect." In fact, "the best impressions depend on exaggeration." Some familiar voices still elude him. He can only do Kenny Rogers, for example, with a cold. And he has yet to capture, among others, Mike Wallace and Ed McMahon ("I haven't found the key"). He also has trouble with a lot of young actors who, he observes, try to be different in every role. "If you did William Hurt to perfection, it still wouldn't mean anything."

Politicians are better, Little says, because they rarely become successful until they're old enough to have tics and craggy faces. He avoids doing Senator Ted Kennedy because "there's too much tragedy—it's hard to be funny." He was lucky, he says, with Nixon, Ford and Carter, but "when Reagan came along, people said, 'Oh boy, Rich is in trouble now.' But he's turned out to be one of my best." If Reagan retires, Little adds, "I'll campaign for whoever has the best voice."

Little works in a media room with five videotape players in his 12-room Malibu beach house. To relax, he watches old movies and works on "my Jimmy Connors impression"—playing tennis. His best critic is his doubles partner—and wife—Jeanne, 42, an Englishwoman he met in 1969 (she was a secretary to comic Joey Bishop) and married two years later. Their daughter, Bria, 5, knows his work too. Listening to the song New York, New York on the radio, she asked, "Daddy, is that Frankie or you?"

On the road a third of the year, Little sometimes bumps into friends who are also his targets, like Sinatra. Recently Frank wanted Don Rickles to move out of a hotel suite in Lake Tahoe a night early so that Sinatra and his family could move in. He had Little call Rickles as Rickles, which so flustered the comic that he agreed to move. And Cary Grant, according to Little, "complains that he can't call room service in a hotel, because the person on the other end will say, 'Good, Rich, now do Bogey.' " Little must do Cary better. "When I order room service as Cary Grant," he says, "it always comes in minutes." Then, serious for a change, Little adds, "I think the voices I do best are the people I admire most."

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