BWW Interviews: Granddaddy Impressionist of Them All Rich Little Brings Jimmy Stewart and Friends to Escondido

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Needing no introduction, popular TV star of the 60s, 70s and 80s impressionist Rich Little, who is known for his impressions of Ronald Regan, Jimmy Stewart, George Burns, Richard Nixon, among others, will appear at the Welk Resort in Escondido Wednesday February 29 thru Sunday March 4. In our interview he gives us a little preview of his latest solo show Jimmy Stewart and Friends, which he hopes to eventually take into New York.

When did you first know you had the knack for doing so many different voices?

Oh, when I was about 15 or 16 I started imitating teachers at school. Kids loved it; the poor teachers were bewildered. They didn't know why I was talking in such a strange voice.

Didn't you start professionally imitating politicians?

No. In the beginning actually I did teachers and movie stars and TV performers; I didn't do politicians until a Prime Minister in Canada came along, Diefenbaker (John), who was very stupid, very strange...everybody was trying to imitate him; I hooked on to his voice, and it went over extremely well. He was the first politician I ever did.

You had a partner in those days, correct?

Yeah, I did. We were school boys and clowned around a lot, I suppose, and did voices and stuff; it was just a hobby. When I started to make money, it became a different story. (he laughs)

You were a disc jockey as well, weren't you?

Yeah, I was. I used my voices all the time. I used to do takeoffs of movies, little sketches I had written; I did an all night show when I was a teenager. I had quite a following, because I would do so many crazy things. It was Friday night and I'd work until six in the morning. Later I joined a radio station, where I was born in Canada, about fifty miles from Ottawa, and became a permanent announcer on that.

Was The Judy Garland Show (1963) your American TV debut?

I had done a show in Toronto with a friend of mine, Mel Torme, and he got me on that show.It was just terrific. I was doing voices nobody else had done, and Judy took a liking to me, and when I did James Mason from A Star Is Born, her reaction was...she really flipped out. When you watch it today (on video), you can't take your eyes off her (she was relishing it so much).

Who's your favorite character to play?

There's a couple I like. I love to do Regan, 'cause I knew him so well. He was such a fan, and he was the best audience in the world. And Carson (Johnny) was one that I still do, and a lot of people knew me from doing Nixon. I'd say Carson and Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, those are the voices that everybody remembers from early in my career. I don't think he's going to go anywhere, but the best one to imitate is Ron Paul. (he chuckles) I always tell people, "Vote for Ron Paul. Who cares? Would he make a good President or not, give me a break!"

What would Jimmy Stewart say about Congress today?

(in his best Stewart voice) He'd say, "Wow. I made a movie called Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a story of greed and corruption in the Senate. If it was made today, it would probably be called Fantasy Island.
(we both laugh) That's right out of my Jimmy Stewart show.

What would Ronald Regan say?

(assuming Regan's voice) He'd probably say, "Barrack Obama's campaign is picking up speed, but then things do pick up speed when you go down hill."

I read a review of an LP about the First Family that you did in 1981, which stated "there are too many ancient jokes and impressions of dead people." How do you feel about negative comments like that?

The best voices are the ones that are deceased. They say that about everything; "just an excuse to do impressions"! You can destroy anything if you want to. My main objective is to please the audience. When I put Dr. Phil in Jimmy Stewart, he doesn't really belong there, or Andy Rooney, but it works. It doesn't have anything to do with Jimmy Stewart, but the idea is to entertain. There are so many things I knew about Jimmy because I knew him so well, things that he told me, but somebody could say "That isn't true. He made that up." I told him a couple of years before he died that I was thinking about doing a one-man show about his life, and he said, "Rich, I don't think that's a good idea. With the way I talk, that show would be over 4 hours long." I said, "I'll speed it up a little." He said, "Oh, I'll be on a faster speed." He had a wonderful sense of humor. So did Regan...and with the two of them together...

Give us more of a preview of the show you'll be doing in Escondido at the Welk Resort.

I'm going to do my Jimmy Stewart show, which ends up having about 26 impressions in it. There's the obvious ones with Stewart, like Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Ronald Regan, Robert Stack and Lionel Barrymore, but, as I said before, I put a lot of other people in it, like Louis Armstrong because Gloria's (Stewart, Jimmy's wife) favorite tune was "It's a Wonderful World". It's a tour-de-force for me, because I go from Jimmy Stewart right into characters. I take license. Every time I stand up, I do a character; every time I sit down, I do Jimmy. So, it isn't like a usual one-man show. I mean, you see George Burns or you see Clarence Darrow talking for an hour and a half. Me doing Jimmy Stewart is going through a raft of impressions. It's certainly not boring. I didn't want to bore the audience;  I want them wondering who's coming next.

Believe me, you are not boring! Why do you think a TV show like The Kopycats (1972) isn't produced today?

The money. A show like that costs a fortune. I loved doing the variety show with Julie Andrews; it's the one I'm most proud of. That would cost ten times what it cost. Maybe if you kept it simple ...  but when you have big sets, today it's just incredible. Those Julie Andrews shows...each one was like a special. They spent a lot of money on them. Variety went out of vogue. When you think about it, there are no variety shows now.

What's the most embarrassing moment you've had as a performer?

One time years ago I introduced Gerald Ford. I set the whole thing up, and then I did Spiro Agnew's voice... for Gerald Ford...all the lines in the wrong voice. The interesting thing was that nobody mentioned it. Not much demand for Spiro Agnew today. (he laughs)

Any new impressionists coming up that you would highly recommend?

Gordy Brown down at the Golden Nugget (Las Vegas) is an extraordinary talent. He's from my home town in Ottawa. We're both Canadians. He's very good. We don't have as many impersonators as we used to.

We're looking forward to seeing you do Jimmy Stewart and Friends in Escondido.

I'm looking forward to doing it. I've never done five nights in a row. I'm gearing it towards Broadway, so all the shows I can get are like rehearsals to improve it. I won't do that, go to New York, until I know it really works. You can go into New York and open and close in a week. That would be the end of it, so...I saw George Burns on Broadway with Frank Gorshin. I never thought it was really that good, but it certainly did well in Florida and on Broadway. When they asked me to o a show, they wanted me to put Jack Benny in it...Groucho Marks, other comedians. George, they just wanted to do George.

George Burns was George Burns. In a class by himself. Rich Little, the Man of a Thousand Voices, is another comedian/impressionist like no other. He is the granddad of impressionists... a totally unique entertainer for the ages.
Don't miss him in Escondido at the Lawrence Welk Theatre February 29-March 4!

for info and tix: 

http://www.welktheatersandiego.com/

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Don Grigware Don Grigware is an Ovation nominated actor and writer whose contributions to theatre through the years have included 6 years as theatre editor of NoHoLA, a contributor to LA Stage Magazine and currently on his own website:

www.grigwaretalkstheatre.com

Don hails from Holyoke, Massachusetts and holds two Masters Degrees from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in Education and Bilingual Studies. He is a teacher of foreign language and ESL.

Don is in his sixth year with BWW, currently serving as Senior Editor of the Los Angeles Page. He received a BWW Award for Excellence in 2014 as one of the top ten Regional Editors across the globe.


 
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