The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Lifestyles

June 22, 2012

Friend subject of impressionist Rich Little’s show

PITTSBURG, Kan. — Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Jack Nicholson and Henry Fonda will perform at Memorial Auditorium on Saturday.

OK, not really.

Their voices and mannerisms will be impersonated there by Rich Little as part of his show, “Jimmy Stewart and Friends.” It’s a tribute, he says, to his good friend, Stewart, and those with whom Stewart worked.

In a phone interview from Las Vegas last week, Little talked about the show, the art of impersonation and what he likes to do when he’s being himself.

Now 73, Little has been impersonating people since age 12, when he earned laughs from classmates by imitating his teachers’ voices.

“The poor teachers were bewildered,” said Little, a native of Canada who became a U.S. citizen in 2010.

But the youngster knew he was onto something, so he kept at it.

“When I was a kid, I was always interested in the past,” Little said. He studied the distinctive voices and mannerisms of the stars he loved: Errol Flynn, Alan Ladd, Humphrey Bogart. Early gigs included appearances in small nightclubs, as a disc jockey, and as a talk show host.

By the time Little had his own variety show in the 1970s, he was a household name. He’s still performing, and audiences still love impersonations: “Jimmy Stewart and Friends” runs five nights a week at the Las Vegas Hilton.

“It’s like anything that you’re good at Ñ a good tap dancer, a good juggler Ñ somebody that can imitate somebody close to the original, well, people regard that as a talent. It gives a lot of enjoyment to people,” he said.

Little was a good friend of Stewart’s, he said, and spent a lot of time with him.

“Dean Martin roasts, the Julie Andrews show. We had a good rapport, and I asked him lots of questions about his career,” Little said. “I had a lot of material on him, and he seemed like a good person to sort of do a life story of because he worked with so many of the greats Ñ the actors I grew up with as a kid.”

Little used that material, along with 28 impersonations of people who worked with Stewart, to create his latest show. Ronald Reagan, John Wayne and Johnny Carson are among his favorites and the easiest to do.

They are “distinctive,” he said.

“You have to have something that makes you distinctive, like your voice stands out or something physical, something a little different,” he said. “Certain people are hard to impersonate, hard to do, like Brad Pitt, George Clooney. It’s hard for me to do Mitt Romney at the moment, but you never know. If we see enough of him, hear enough of him, perhaps he’ll be a good subject.”

Little likes doing Reagan because “he’s so physical and I knew him so well. I loved him, thought he was a wonderful, wonderful man, so I have great memories of him. He has a very identifiable voice, Reagan has. He’s always been one of my favorites.”

“Johnny Carson was always one of mine, too, because he has so many little tics Ñ scratching his head, his arm, the golf swing, he looks behind,” Little said. “A guy like that is perfect to impersonate.” Other favorites include Paul Lynde, Dr. Phil, Dr. Ruth, Kathryn Hepburn, Edith Bunker and Carol Channing.

“Anybody larger than life, you know? Anybody that’s really distinctive,” he said.

Little said he also enjoys impersonating politicians when he can get in a few digs.

“I have certainly gone after Obama Ñ political stuff. When people have problems, when things aren’t going well, they’re always better subjects, always more to talk about. Nixon and Clinton wrote the material for me,” he said.

His most challenging impersonation remains Frank Sinatra.

“I have hits and misses. You gotta get the phrasing right, the attitude. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” he said.

Off stage, Little said he likes to just be himself.

“I’ve always worked with charcoal, played a little tennis, some golf when there’s no one looking, and work on my material a lot,” he said. “I also enjoy my movie collection.”

And he works.

“I’m working on the show all the time,” he said. “It’s good rehearsal for me. I take it on the road occasionally. I really want to take it to Broadway, but in order to do that you gotta make sure it’s gonna work, you know?”

He plans to perform until his health precludes it.

“My back is my problem, but it doesn’t seem to affect me on stage. My mind is geared to the lines,” he said. “I’ll just keep going until I can’t stand up. Then I won’t be a stand-up, I’ll be a sit-down comic.”

He predicts impersonators of the future will have a challenging time, primarily because there are a lack of distinctive celebrities like days of old.

“Matt Damon, now that’s gonna be a tough time,” he said.

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