When Sen. Ted Cruz was in the middle of his 21-hour filibuster, he had already read “Green Eggs and Ham” to his children via C-SPAN, found himself killing time and needed a way to praise his fellow filibusterist, Sen. Mike Lee. So he tapped into his actor’s training and summoned up his best Darth Vader impression.
It was the impressionistic coming-out for the Texas Republican, who has since trotted out his versions of Jay Leno, Winston Churchill and fictional swordsman Inigo Montoya from the movie “The Princess Bride.”
The impersonations have sparked laughter and applause from audiences and have added another dimension to the potential presidential candidate, who says it’s all in good fun.
“I often remind myself that a good impression is great but a bad impression consistently gets a laugh,” Mr. Cruz said.
The tea party hero channeled Churchill at the annual Claremont Institute Dinner, where he raised his hand to the sky and bellowed in his best Churchill voice, “We will never surrender!”
He also has broken out his Leno impression a couple of times, including at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, where he mocked Mr. Leno’s on-again, off-again relationship with NBC and President Obama’s struggles with Obamacare.
“Last fall, Jay Leno said, ‘So, ah, President Obama called me. He said, “Jay if you like your job you can keep it,’” Mr. Cruz said, mimicking the nasal-toned Mr. Leno. “He followed that up a couple weeks later. He said, ‘So, ah, the holidays are coming up, Thanksgiving. You know the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims said to the Indians, ‘If you like your land, you can keep it.’”
Professional impersonators tied to William Gold Entertainment’s Politicos Comedy Brigade said Mr. Cruz shouldn’t plan on a career in the business.
“The Jay Leno thing was bad, and then the joke about the Pilgrims — oof,” said Steve Van Zandt. “I would tell him that sucked whether I am a conservative, a liberal, a moderate, a libertarian, it doesn’t matter.”
Asked to grade the Texas Republican’s skills as an impressionist, Mr. Van Zandt placed him “in kindergarten.”
“He should be in the men’s room at the Capitol practicing his impressions in a stall before he launches it on a national audience in my opinion,” said Mr. Van Zandt, a comedian who was paid to portray Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II ahead of last year’s Virginia gubernatorial election.
Other comedians were even less forgiving.
“As someone who impersonates Jay Leno, I find it amazing that Ted Cruz is oblivious to Jay Leno’s speech impediment,” said John Di Domenico. “But then again, Ted Cruz is oblivious to the fact he shut down the government.”
Mr. Di Domenico, who is also known for his Donald Trump impression, said Mr. Cruz’s Leno sounds “more like the Edward G. Robinson gangster from the Bugs Bunny cartoons.”
“I guess all Americans sound the same to Canadians,” he said, alluding to the fact that Mr. Cruz was born in Alberta to an American citizen mother and American resident father and lived there until he was 4.
Mr. Cruz’s Darth Vader impression, which came near the end of his filibuster last year, was meant as a tribute to Mr. Lee, a fellow senator who stayed on the floor through much of Mr. Cruz’s talkathon.
Mr. Cruz said he felt like they were the rebel alliance from “Star Wars,” fighting the forces of evil.
“I wondered if at some point we were going to see a tall gentleman in a mechanical breathing apparatus come forward and say in a deep voice, ‘Mike Lee, I am your father,’” Mr. Cruz said, dropping into the breathy, low tones of Darth Vader, who was voiced in the movies by legendary actor James Earl Jones.
Showing his age as a child of 1980s culture, Mr. Cruz also has done his impression of Inigo Montoya, briefly impersonating the swordsman at this year’s CPAC speech.
Obama impersonator Ron Butler was perplexed by Mr. Cruz’s character choices.
“My only reaction was, ‘Is it just me or did it occur to anyone else that everyone he impersonates is either fictional, unemployed or dead,’” Mr. Butler said.
Mr. Van Zandt said he thinks comedy — when done well — is an effective and underused tool in American politics, pointing to former President Ronald Reagan’s witty remark during his 1984 debate against Walter Mondale, where he responded to a question about his age by saying, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
“That is worth its weight in political gold and it shows a side of him to the American people that this guy is not the forgetful, bumbling cowboy who can’t remember how to put his socks on,” he said. “It just showed that this guy is witty. He’s got it together.”
As far as impressions go, Mr. Van Zandt suggested he is willing to cut Mr. Cruz some slack because he has yet to come across an elected official that has successfully made them a regular part of his schtick.
“In fact, most of them have a difficult time doing themselves accurately,” he quipped.
Hillary Rodham Clinton impersonator Rosemary Watson said Mr. Cruz should start playing to his strengths. “I mean, the guy’s a dead ringer for Frank Burns from the early ‘MASH’ episodes, and he’s as whiney as Frank. I say start there,” Ms. Watson said.
She added, “To his credit, he’s already got the venues. Tea party mobs after the Jim Beam has been passed around, empty Senate chambers at 3 a.m. I’d kill for his agent.”