Fred Travalena dies at 66; master impressionist and singer
By By Dennis McLellan
Jun 30, 2009 | 12:00 AM
Fred Travalena, the master impressionist and singer whose broad repertoire of voices ranged from Jack Nicholson to Sammy Davis Jr. to Bugs Bunny, has died. He was 66.
Travalena, who began treatment for an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2002 and saw the disease return last July after going into remission in 2003, died Sunday at his home in Encino, according to his publicist, Roger Neal. Travalena also was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003 but had been in complete remission since then.
Dubbed "The Man of a Thousand Faces" and "Mr. Everybody," Travalena emerged on the national stage as an impressionist in the early 1970s.
Over the next three decades, he was a headliner in Las Vegas, Reno and Atlantic City, performed in concerts across the country, appeared on "The Tonight Show" and other talk shows and starred in his own specials, such as "The Many Faces of Fred Travalena" and "Comedy in the Oval Office."
The boyish-faced entertainer is said to have had a repertoire of more than 360 celebrity, political and cartoon-character voices, including Clint Eastwood, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, Johnny Mathis, Bruce Springsteen and Luciano Pavarotti.
"I've known impressionists who have reached a wall where they can't do any more" voices, Travalena told the Omaha World-Herald in 1996. "I don't have that problem, thank God."
In one part of his act, Travalena physically and vocally "morphed" into all of the U.S. presidents, from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.
He also was known to sing "Have I Told You Lately" in various voices, including Kermit the Frog ("Have I told you lately that I love you"), Katharine Hepburn ("Have I told you there's no one else above you") and Frank Sinatra ("You fill my heart with gladness . . . ")
The imaginative entertainer even did Sinatra imitating Boy George.
Of Italian and Irish heritage, Travalena was born Oct. 6, 1942, in the Bronx, N.Y., and grew up on Long Island.
When it came to impressions, he had an early role model: his father, a onetime entertainer who sang and performed comedy and impressions.
"He got me doing church shows when I was just a little kid," Travalena recalled in a 1998 interview on "The Crier Report" on Fox News Network. "I used to do an impression of [singer] Johnny Ray."
In school, he said, he learned to deal with bullies by imitating a Martian voice or Porky Pig. And he found he could deflect a teacher's question of why he didn't do his homework by making her laugh with his impression of Crazy Guggenheim, the goofy character played on TV by Frank Fontaine during the "Joe the Bartender" sketches on Jackie Gleason's show.
During a stint in the Army's Special Services, Travalena won the All-Army Entertainment Award for best singer and once impersonated President Lyndon Johnson's voice on the base theater's answering machine to announce the movies and show times.
Although he told the New York Times in 1989 that he was "headed for the commercial art field," Travalena said, "That wasn't getting me up in the morning, and I couldn't get show business out of my mind."
At one point after launching his career as a singer, he and his singer wife, Lois, were performing together at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington.
As recounted in a 1989 New York Times story, Lois surprised her husband by spontaneously asking the audience, "How'd you like to hear Fred do impressions?"
He went on to impersonate Dean Martin, Paul Lynde, Jim Nabors and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
"People liked it," he later said.
Travalena reportedly was performing at a resort hotel in the Catskills when impressionist Rich Little was in the audience. After the show, Little congratulated Travalena and later recommended him for a spot in British celebrity journalist David Frost's show at the Riviera in Las Vegas.
Travalena joined Little, Frank Gorshin and other impressionists as a regular on the "ABC Comedy Hour," the 1972 comedy-variety show, which was known in reruns as the "ABC Comedy Hour Presents the Kopycats."
In 1974, he opened for Shirley MacLaine at the MGM Grand and later opened for other Vegas performers such as Mathis, Davis, Wayne Newton and Andy Williams.
Travalena's talent for vocal mimicry led to a side career dubbing in clean dialogue to replace offensive words in feature films bound for airing on television -- including Pesci in "Casino," De Niro in "Brazil" and Sean Connery in "Just Cause."
Travalena made occasional guest appearances on TV series such as "The Love Boat" and "Murphy Brown," as well as on "Hollywood Squares" and other game shows. He also did voices on a number of TV cartoon series and appeared in the 1978 movie "The Buddy Holly Story."
In recent years, he turned to songwriting and singing and released CDs, including "We All Need Love Today" and "The Spirit of America."
Travalena received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005.
He is survived by his wife of 39 years, Lois; sons Fred IV and Cory; and a granddaughter, Sophia.