Rich Little is the man of 1,000 voices. Maybe more. Since the early 1960s, the Canadian-born impersonator and comic has been entertaining audiences in person and on TV with his spot-on mimicry of the famous faces of the day. Fans of classic television will remember his iconic appearances on everything from the original “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” to the game show “Hollywood Squares.”
At the age of 80, Mr. Little shows still performs five nights a week at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas, and he has just put out a book “Little By Little: People I Have Known And Been.”
Mr. Little talked about many of those people he has known and impersonated — doing their voices at the same time. We also spoke about why he will never write his autobiography and the Dean Martin Roasts.
Question: What inspired you to write your book?
Answer: That I had worked with so many great actors and comedians down
through the years and had wonderful experiences with them. And funny
things happened. So I decided to write a book. Not my biography! (Laughs)
That would be too unbelievable.
This book is stories of a lot of people I admired and worked with through the years.
Q: How do you remember all the great stories?
A: I kept a diary so I could refer back to that. It helped quite a bit.
Q: Will you ever write your autobiography?
A: I don’t think I will ever write it. It took 20 years to write this book.
(Laughs) I don’t think my own personal life story would be as interesting. Although I was married four times. (Laughs) It might be a “tell-all” book, which I wouldn’t do. (Laughs)
I was more interested in the people that I worked with. When I was a kid I admired so many actors and comedians and never dreamed that I would get to know them and work with them. That was the biggest thrill.
Q: Was there one actor or comic you worked with that left you starstruck?
A: Jimmy Stewart was probably the actor I admired the most. He was terrific. And Ronald Reagan. Well. He was a wonderful man. And a great laugher. When I did him, he would fall on the floor screaming with laughter. Once Nancy explained the jokes to him.
Q: He enjoyed your impersonations. Was there ever anyone who didn’t?
A: Well Paul Lynde from “Hollywood Squares.” I don’t think he liked my impression at all. Maybe I was a little too feminine for him. He hated it.
Every time I would do him on the Dean Martin Roast or “Tonight Show” he
would make a face. He’d say [in Paul Lynde voice], “Who’s he doing?!
Tony Randall never liked my impression either. He would say [in Tony Randall voice] “It is impossible to imitate me because I’ve got perfect pitch.” Perfect pitch?
Most people got a kick out of my impression. I always felt Ed Sullivan didn’t like people impersonating him. He used to fake it.
Q: Why and when did you start doing impersonations?
A: I started by doing teachers at school. I would answer them in class in their
voice. I knew it was going to be my life’s work because it wasn’t long till the
teachers were charging a cover charge and a two-drink minimum. (Laughs)
Q: How many of the Dean Martin Roasts did you do?
A: I did 24 roasts. I think I did so many because if I could imitate four or five people on the dais they would book me on the show. I would impersonate them, and they would cut to the actual person on the show.
Q: Was it easier for you to do the roasts?
A: It was. It was tough for actors to do the Dean Martin Roasts, because
they weren’t comedians and they didn’t have timing. It was interesting to see
someone who was a movie star get up there and do the roasts. They would
just read off the cue cards. Sometimes it didn’t work. They would be cut out
of the show. But in the long shot you would see them sitting on the dais. If
you were a big enough name and you didn’t do well, they would add in
canned laughter or even cut in somebody laughing from a different roast.
Q: Were the Dean Martin Roasts as fun as they appeared?
A: They were a lot of fun. Especially if you did well. But there was also a
lot of tension. It was nerve racking is you’re performing in front of the
greats. If you look to your right you saw John Wayne and George Burns. To
your left Jack Benny and Lucille Ball. You had to concentrate and not let
them throw you.
Q: Do you consider yourself a variety performer?
A: I consider myself an impersonator but probably a comedian. I never
realized when I started out I had to be a comedian. I thought I just imitated
people. Then of course you found out you have to say something funny.
Q: How many different voices can you do?
A: If called to task I can do probably 200 voices. You gotta pick people who are well known. The icons.
Q: Do you perform at the Tropicana every night?
A: No. I’m off Mondays and Fridays. But every other night I’m there.
Q: Who is coming out to the shows these days?
A: Older people. When you think of the people I’m doing in the show, it makes sense. Once in a while I get some young people that come in that are curious. And their parents are nodding and laughing while they are looking at me like, “What is he doing?”
Rich Little’s book “Little By Little: People I’ve Known and Been” is available now in bookstores everywhere.