Rich Little: Flattery Most Sincere : Comedy: The celebrity imitator will bring his 200 voices to a benefit Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
At the end of impressionist Rich Little’s most recent visit to Jimmy Stewart’s Beverly Hills home, the legendary star was walking Little out to his car when a tour bus pulled up. An excited tourist yelled out of the bus window, “Rich Little! What are you doing coming out of Jimmy Stewart’s?”
Before Little could answer, Stewart grinned and, in his trademark slow delivery, drawled, “Rich just came over to get his batteries charged.”
Little will undoubtedly be amply charged Sunday evening when he appears with singer Julie Budd at a benefit at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Proceeds will go to more than 40 Orange County charities.
Little still chuckles at the Jimmy Stewart incident.
“Jimmy is a wonderful man,” he said. “He’s very funny, in a slow way.”
Speaking by phone last week from Reno, where he was appearing at Harrah’s, Little explained that he is always subconsciously recharging his batteries by watching old movies on television.
A lifelong movie buff, the Canadian-born impressionist remembers the first celebrity voice he ever did. It was, as it turns out, Jimmy Stewart. Little was 12 at the time.
“I asked my mom for a piece of pie,” he said, slipping into the Stewart drawl and stretching out the word pie . With a laugh, he added, “ P-i-i-i-e is such a good word for Jimmy.”
When Little made his American TV debut on “The Judy Garland Show” in 1964, he had about 20 voices in his repertoire. Today, there are nearly 200.
So who’s hot and who’s not?
Jack Nicholson, Frank Sinatra and Arnold Schwarzenegger get big audience reactions, Little said. And Ronald Reagan is no less popular out of office than when he was in.
“He’s a big part of the act,” Little said. “And Nixon’s still there. I think people still identify me with Nixon. And Jimmy Carter’s great because he’s just like Howdy Doody.”
Little’s act includes his version of Trivial Pursuit. It’s called Presidential Pursuit and features Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Bush. The host is Ted Koppel (actually Little in “a terrible red wig”), who appears on a big screen on stage. As “Koppel” asks a question, the onstage Little runs from one end of a table to the other, answering as the various presidents.
“The questions are about ridiculous things, anything stupid,” Little said. “Most of my political humor is kind of dumb.”
He has, for example, Bush suggesting a new source of energy: He proposes building a pipeline to the sun.
Of course, Reagan thinks the idea is totally absurd. Carter thinks it has merit but says it won’t work because “you’d burn up halfway there.” That’s no problem for Bush: He says they’d work at night.
“The Bush voice is going over just great,” said Little, adding that many comedians just do a nasal sound when they do a Bush impression. Slipping into his Bush voice, Little explained: “It’s kind of a rhythm thing with George Bush. He kind of talks fast, and he’ll punctuate certain words: ‘We’re not gonna take this, and we’re gonna go on in and do our bit.’ It’s not ‘ going to '--it’s ‘ gonna .’ ”
Little, who is always working on new voices, is currently trying to master Jay Leno by studying tapes of the comedian. “His body movement and rhythm are very interesting,” he said. “There’s a lot of fidgeting around there.” With a laugh, Little added, “I may even see if I can go in for a chin fitting.”
Not every voice he attempts to emulate makes it into his act, however.
“I never mastered Ed McMahon, except maybe his laugh,” Little said. “But there are hundreds I haven’t done, like Robert Redford, Harrison Ford, Gene Hackman. They’re just not distinctive enough to make an impression on the audience. It’s like (impressionist) Fred Travelino does Robert DeNiro, and I think it’s very good, but I just don’t think the audience knows what Robert DeNiro sounds like.”
In his current act, Little closes with what he calls “a movie tribute to America from a Canadian.”
“I do some of the great speeches that stars are known for that are patriotic and finish with John Wayne talking a little bit about the Middle East,” he said. Included are scenes of Henry Fonda in “The Grapes of Wrath,” Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and George C. Scott in “Patton.”
Among the current crop of Hollywood stars, Little finds few worth imitating. Most of them do not have the larger-than-life personalities that the earlier stars had, he said.
“I sometimes wonder what the impersonator will be doing 10 years from now--ending up with his devastating Tom Hanks or his Matthew Broderick tribute? It doesn’t sound too exciting, does it?” he said.
Of all the projects he has been involved with over the years, Little said he is most proud of his version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The Emmy-winning show from the ‘70s, in which he does W.C. Fields as Scrooge and Truman Capote as Tiny Tim, will be released on videocassette in December.
After three decades in show business, Little admits he is still as star-struck as he was as a kid in Canada.
He relishes the phone calls and letters he used to receive from the late Cary Grant telling him how much he enjoyed one of Little’s performances. Grant once told Little he heard one of his comedy albums on an airplane flight and laughed so hysterically listening to Little as Jimmy Stewart singing “People” that he nearly had to be carried off the plane.
And if the man of 200 voices could go through life with any one voice, which would it be?
“I always said it would be Cary Grant,” Little said. “No question about it. Cary Grant, to me, had the most interesting, fascinating, sexy voice. I could have used that voice in college.”
Rich Little appears Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $50-$1,000. For information, call the Orange County Sports Assn. at (714) 634-1984.