Rich Little makes a good first impression
Note to readers: In November 2002, Rich Little blew through nine American presidents during a one-man, six-day show at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Dallas. He began with John F. Kennedy and ended with George W. Bush. Before The Presidents, Little sat down for an anecdote-loaded interview that dropped names ranging from Reagan to Richard Nixon to Johnny Carson, whom he briefly portrayed in the 1996 HBO movie The Late Shift. Little lately is supporting Donald Trump, in part because he thinks the country needs a dramatic change. More to the point, though, “From my perspective I’ll have a wealth of material,” Little told an interviewer in July during an engagement in Las Vegas.
This article was first published on Nov. 12, 2002.
By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Rich Little once hung up on President Reagan, thinking he was an imposter doing a bad impression.
Johnny Carson once hung up on Jack Benny, thinking he was Rich Little.
And Rich Little still has a framed letter from an adoring fan who praised all of his great contributions to show business, particularly “Tutti-Frutti” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” It was meant for Little Richard.
“Maybe he’s got some letters telling him, ‘Your John Wayne is outstanding,’ “ Little says. These stories and many more might someday be in a book he’s been messing around with for the last five years. Tentative title: People I Have Known or Been.
“True stories. Well, what you don’t remember you make up. But basically they’re true.”
Makeup is essential for The Presidents, which begins a six-day run at the Majestic Theatre Tuesday night. Billed as both “touching and hilarious,” it stars Little as the last nine American presidents, beginning with John F. Kennedy. Gerald Ford’s former press secretary, Ron Nessen, co-wrote the script for a production that includes four other actors in supporting roles, principally Ginger Grace as all of the First Ladies. For his part(s), Little will be juggling wigs, fake noses and various other adornments in a game effort to keep looking presidential.
“Each time it’s done in less than two minutes,” he says. “And when you go from Kennedy to LBJ, that’s a big change. You don’t want the nose to fall off in the middle of a scene.”
Trim, tanned and jocular, Little is a nicely preserved 63-year-old who’s been doing impressions for his entire adult life. Canadian by birth, his first American TV appearance was in 1964 on Judy Garland’s acclaimed but short-lived CBS variety show.
“So I came along at the right time for me, and got my name pretty well known by doing a lot of television,” he says. “Today I don’t do any television because when you get over 50 they don’t want you.”
Little was just shy of his 25th birthday, and getting a pair of pants fitted at a Canada tailor shop, when he heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. A popular young Kennedy impressionist named Vaughn Meader saw his gainful career end overnight.
“After the assassination, the comedy was over,” Little says. “You can imitate and make fun of people that die a natural death or get older or whatever. When you’re tragically killed, though, the humor really goes away. So we do Kennedy in the context of history. It’s not a Saturday Night Live spoof. It’s a history lesson, a true portrayal with a lot of the humor coming out of the paranoia of a couple of presidents and the idiosyncrasies of others.
“It’s a slight exaggeration of facts, like (Richard) Nixon going over his enemies list or Kennedy talking to Marilyn Monroe while trying to work on the Bay of Pigs situation and getting the phone lines mixed up. That’s funny. It probably never happened, but you never know.”
Little has met a majority of the presidents he’s portraying. Ford is the toughest to flesh out, he says.
“Not too exciting. A nice man, though. I told him I was going to be doing this show. And he said, ‘Well, I don’t know. Is there any tripping or falling?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘OK, I’ll come.’ “
Reagan, whom Little considers a pal, “was a little vague and a little out to lunch even back then as president . . . He loved to tell jokes and talk about his movies. He’d tell me these long, involved jokes. Sometimes they’d go nowhere, and there was no punch line.
“One time he wanted to know how my impression of him was coming along. I told him that his head is always bobbing and he looks down a lot. And he said, ‘Well, you’d look down, too, if you owned a horse ranch.’ “
He first met Nixon at a garden party in California several years before Watergate undid his presidency.
“Debbie Reynolds just literally threw me at the president and said, ‘Rich is going to do you.’ I don’t know what he thought of that. I started to do him, and he didn’t have a clue that I was doing him. He just looked at me and said, ‘Who’s this? Why’s he talking like this?’ He must have thought I was a complete lunatic.”
But seriously, folks, Little has an even better Nixon story, this one told to him by a friend who owned a Mexican restaurant in San Diego.
“Nixon loved Mexican food, so he went there for lunch. When he finished, he suddenly stood up and said, ‘Can I have your attention, please? I have an announcement. I would like to congratulate you on an excellent beefy taco.’
“An excellent beefy taco! That’s hysterical! That’s all he had to say! That is so typically Nixon.”
Little encountered Bill Clinton at a fundraiser in Las Vegas.
“ ‘I’m afraid to meet you,’ he told me. ‘God knows what you’re doing to me.’
“And I said, ‘Well, you’ve written me a lot of good material.’ And he laughed at that.”
Little’s catalog of impressions numbers about 200, some of them all but retired.
“Oh yeah, my Spiro Agnew and George McGovern aren’t too popular right now,” Little says, referring to Nixon’s first vice president and the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee.
On request, he does Agnew anyway -- for the first time in 30 years: “Let me give you a little background on myself and clarify the discrepancies promulgated by those who close their eyes to the pernicious influence of the spirit of national masochism encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs.”
There’s a kicker.
“I have no idea why, but that was Jack Benny’s favorite impression. He’d say, ‘Give me a little Spiro. God, that Spiro Agnew kills me.’ “
Some impressions still elude Little. He perfected the late Steve Allen’s laugh, but could never nail the voice. “And I can’t do Ed McMahon either except for the ‘Ho ho ho.’
“A lot of the film stars of today I’m not imitating,” he adds. “They’re impossible to do. How do you do Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise or even Harrison Ford? There’s not a lot of call for Jon Voight either, and my Val Kllmer isn’t too exciting . . . Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Ross Perot and Truman Capote -- they came in about five minutes. They already were caricatures. Jack Nicholson’s easy to do, too. But Robert Redford, how would you do that? I have no idea. And even if you did him well, people wouldn’t respond.”
Little later seizes an opening when his interviewer foolishly tells him that everyone thinks he can do at least one impression. This leads to a very lame attempt to do Howard Cosell while the master feigns approval. Far better to end with another of Little’s show biz stories.
“I once did a benefit where Gerald Ford and Frank Sinatra were in the front row. I had a podium made out of cork so I could trip into it and it would fall apart. I overdid it. I hit that podium so hard that it flew into a million pieces and I fell off the stage and landed in Gerald Ford’s lap!
“And cork’s coming down and Frank’s pounding the floor scuh-reaming with laughter. And I put the mic up to Gerald Ford and he goes, ‘Whoops.’
“Frank and I became friends after that. He liked anyone who could make him laugh, and he thought that was the funniest thing he’s ever seen. Gerald Ford got a great kick out of it, too.”
Pause, one-two. “Anyway . . .”
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