Correspondent Tracy Smith asked celebrity impersonator Rich Little, “Is it true that when you became a U.S. citizen, the judge asked you to do it in a John Wayne voice?”
“Yeah, yeah. He said. ‘I’m gonna swear you in as John Wayne,’ So, I got up there and I said, “Well, mister, I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States. And don’t crowd me!”
In case you were wondering, Rich Little is alive and well, and on any given night, so are a lot of his old friends. Right now he’s in Las Vegas, filling the reduced-capacity shows at The Laugh Factory at the Tropicana. But at 82, Little’s been in show biz longer than some of his audience members have been alive.
The walls of his home are hung with photos of people he’s met along the way – some of the biggest names of the last century. Smith asked, “Is it sometimes hard to believe that you knew all these people?”
“Yeah, it is. It is. I mean, here’s a shot of John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and me and Glenn Ford. You know? Yeah, you can’t get any bigger than that!”
The Canadian-born entertainer got his start imitating his teachers at school, and he’d sneak into the movies with a tape recorder so he could hear a celebrity voice over and over. That once got him kicked out of a theater showing Jimmy Stewart’s 1954 film, “The Far Country.” “And I told Jimmy about this when I first met him. He said, ‘You, you, you, you, you, you, you did that?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Richard, you shoulda got ahold of me. I, I, I, I coulda sent you the movie!”
But by the 1970s, he’d become pretty much a fixture on TV, especially game shows. Rich Little has been called “Mister Everybody.” But he says he can actually do about a hundred really well.
‘Course he’s also done just about every president, from Richard Nixon, to Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George Bush, and George Bush. And this summer he’ll be in New York appearing as Nixon in “Trial on the Potomac,” an Off-Broadway play about what would have happened if Nixon hadn’t resigned.
Smith asked, “Do you have a favorite impersonation?”
“Yeah, I would say Ronald Reagan was my favorite,” said Little. “Because he was a great friend of mine. We got along great together. I was even up at their quarters in the White House for lunch.”
In fact, when the Reagans left Washington for good and flew home to California, Rich Little was one of first to greet them when they landed, telling the audience, “I think my impression of President Reagan is getting better and better, because every time I do you, sir, I get this terrible urge to run off with Nancy.”
Truth is, his impersonations haven’t always been just for laughs: When David Niven shot “Curse of the Pink Panther,” he was terminally ill with ALS, and his voice was barely a whisper. So, a lot of what moviegoers heard was actually Rich Little.
But maybe his best-known impersonation was “Tonight Show” legend Johnny Carson: Little was a regular on the show for years, and even guest-hosted a number of times, until the show abruptly stopped calling.
Smith asked, “What happened with ‘The Tonight Show’?”
“Well, I was never quite sure,” Little replied. “Either I said something that rubbed somebody the wrong way, or Johnny got tired of me imitating him. I don’t know. But suddenly, I was a no-book on the show. And I tried to find out why, but I never really found out.”
They did meet again after Carson retired – a chance encounter in a Malibu restaurant. “And when he came over to the table he said, ‘Richard, are, are you still, are you impersonating me?’ And I said, ‘Of course.’ He said, ‘Re – eally?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, John. I mean, people love it. It’s one of my best impressions.’ ‘Well, I’m, I thought, you know, I’m not on the air anymore, maybe they, maybe they’ve forgotten me?’ I said, ‘No, no, no. They haven’t forgotten you at all. My gosh, I’ll be doing you for years.’ Which is true, ’cause I’m still doing him.”
These days, Rich Little is still keeping Johnny’s memory – and those of dozens of others – alive. And after nearly 60 years, the voices come naturally. The hard part, he said, is trying to keep his own voice from fading away.
“When you get to be as old as I am, it’s tougher to get on TV,” he told Smith. “Now, I’m thrilled to be on this show today, because this is probably the first time I’ve been on network television in 30 years.”
“Do you miss it?”
“Yeah, I do. I think what happens is when you get older, people don’t really want to book you on a show. Maybe they think you’re not funny anymore, you know? I don’t know. So, this is a big thrill for me. I hope it goes over well!”
Smith replied, “I have no doubt it will!”
And as Porky Pig might say, “”Eb, eb, eb, eb, that’s all, folks!”
For more info:
- Rich Little Live at the Laugh Factory at the Tropicana, Las Vegas | Tickets
- “Trial on the Potomac: The Impeachment of Richard Nixon” at the Theatre at St. Clements, New York (beginning August 6) | Tickets
Story produced by John D’Amelio. Editor: David Bhagat.