by Jim Longworth
I've interviewed hundreds of celebrities, but never all at once. That is, not until last week, when I spoke with Rich Little by himself. I phoned "The Man of a Thousand Voices" to talk about his career, and his upcoming one man show, "Jimmy Stewart and Friends", which goes up Saturday April 19, at the Brock Performing Arts center in Mocksville.
Born in Ottawa, Ontario Canada, Rich discovered at an early age that he had a special talent for mimicry.
Rich: I remember doing my homeroom teacher. I used to do all of my teachers when I was about fourteen. I was just doing it as a hobby, but I knew there was a future in it because it wasn't long before the teachers were charging a two drink minimum.
But it was young Rich's fascination with film legend James Stewart that eventually made him the world's most famous impressionist.
Rich: Jimmy Stewart was the first movie star I imitated. I saw The Far Country when I was about fifteen, and for two or three days after that, I was talking like Jimmy, and drove my parents crazy.
Rich also tried to drive the girls in his high school crazy, but it didn't always work out.
Rich: I used to get dates by finding out who the girl's favorite star was, and then calling her up as that star, and asking her for a date.
Then I would show up, and she'd be disappointed.
Undaunted, Rich kept doing voices, including during his stint as a DJ in Canada. Then came his big break on The Judy Garland Show. That was followed by regular appearances on TV variety shows, talk shows, and sitcoms. He even had his own series, The Rich Little Show. He also guest starred on dramatic series like Mannix, and Murder She Wrote. But my favorite Rich Little appearance came in 1996 when he did a cameo as Johnny Carson in The Late Shift. It was a bravura performance because he played the iconic character straight.
Rich: It was great that I was able to do that because most producers think of me as just a comic. They say, "Well he does characters funny, but I don't think he can do them straight", and that's not true.
Little is also renown for serving as emcee at various benefits and roasts, and has imitated a number of Presidents with them in attendance.
Rich: Sinatra had a benefit and asked me to be on it, and Gerald Ford was sitting in the audience, right below the stage. I had the podium made out of cork so I could trip like Ford and break it. But that night I hit the podium so hard that it shattered into a million pieces, and I fell off the stage and landed in Gerald Ford's lap. I put the microphone up to his mouth, and he went, "Oops".
These days, Little maintains a grueling schedule, including traveling throughout the country to hone his Broadway-bound show. I wondered what he did to keep his voice in shape.
Rich: If I'm tired, my voice isn't as good, although it's deeper, so some of the voices actually improve when I'm tired - like Johnny Cash or John Wayne. But generally speaking it's better to be well rested because the voice is stronger.
Today, Rich's voice is stronger than ever, and that's good, because he performs over 30 different characters in "Jimmy Stewart and Friends". Speaking of which, I asked him how he decided to develop a show around Stewart.
Rich: The Jimmy Stewart thing came about because I knew him better than anyone I impersonated. I spent a lot of time with him, and I remember telling him that I had this idea of doing a one man show on his life. And he said (in a Stewart voice) "Rich, I don't think you should do that. I don't think that would go over well at all". And I asked, "Why not?" And he said, "For one thing, the way I talk, your show would be about four hours long".
Jimmy Stewart and Friends is not four hours long, but if it were, I'd still want to see it. If you want tickets to see Rich perform on April 19, visit www.daviearts.org or call (336) 751-3000.
You'll hear a lot of famous characters that night, except for maybe one.
Rich: I'm still working on President Obama. I'm having trouble doing him. Of course, he's having trouble doing himself right now.
Jim Longworth is a
columnist for YESWeekly
and author of TV Creators
vols 1 &2