RICH LITTLE alias just about everybody

Just four years ago, Rich Little was playing $30 office-party dates in Ottawa. Now he’s the world’s most successful mimic, grossing about $100,000 a year, conjuring from a cardindex memory 126 dead-on impressions of the famous. With the world by the larynx, he’s got only one fear—Playboy bunnies

CLYDE GILMOUR November 15 1965

RICH LITTLE alias just about everybody

Just four years ago, Rich Little was playing $30 office-party dates in Ottawa. Now he’s the world’s most successful mimic, grossing about $100,000 a year, conjuring from a cardindex memory 126 dead-on impressions of the famous. With the world by the larynx, he’s got only one fear—Playboy bunnies

CLYDE GILMOUR November 15 1965

RICH LITTLE alias just about everybody

Just four years ago, Rich Little was playing $30 office-party dates in Ottawa. Now he’s the world’s most successful mimic, grossing about $100,000 a year, conjuring from a cardindex memory 126 dead-on impressions of the famous. With the world by the larynx, he’s got only one fear—Playboy bunnies

CLYDE GILMOUR

RICH LITTLE, a handsome and well-mannered Ottawa lad of twenty-seven with two members of parliament among his ancestors, is probably the only Canadian alive who can casually refer to Lester B. Pearson as "a baggy, flappy little tree toad” without conveying the slightest suggestion of partisanship or disparagement. His manner is equally free of venom when he remarks that John Diefenbaker displays “a Bible Belt religiosity” in his oratorical style and has the habit of “glaring down and around at the floor as though he’s hunting for something and is angry at himself because he can’t remember what it is.”

The world's most successful mimic, Little uses these words in describing the cartoonlike images of Pearson and Diefenbaker which he has gradually evolved as two of the most popular items among his one hundred and twenty-six impersonations of Canadian, American and British public figures and show-business celebrities.

The word “devastating” often appears in reviews of Little’s performances on television, radio and the nightclub circuits, but the entertainer himself urbanely maintains that he doesn’t despise anybody. He has no interest in politics except as a source of raw material for his impressions. He says he admires both the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition and is grateful to them for having distinctive voices and mannerisms, “fine stuff for an impersonator.” Nonetheless his visual and vocal takeoffs on both men are known to be balefully enjoyed by their respective opponents in the House of Commons. But it’s also true that he has satirized “Dief” in front of Conservatives and “Mike” in fçont of Liberals without causing any hard feelings that could be detected.

Little’s rise in the entertainment world has been rapid but solid, with a secure foundation for the future. Only four years ago he was clowning at office parties in Ottawa for thirty dollars a date, mimicking Charlotte Whitton and other Canadian personalities. By last year, says his manager, Gib Kerr, Little was grossing fifty thousand dollars a year; his income will be between eighty-five and one hundred thousand for 1965, and probably “two hundred thousand before taxes” in 1966.

Little is fond of insisting that his best acts are not sardonic travesties, but affectionate imitations of entertainers whose work he enjoys, such as James Stewart, George Burns and Jack Benny.

Closer questioning, however, reveals an occasional tinge of healthy malice in his outlook. Jack Paar, he admits, is not among his enthusiasms, and close students of Little’s work are convinced that his fatuous, self-obsessed pseudo-Paar (“This is true, this is true. I kid you not”) is one of the best things he does. Little says Paar himself, while still doing a network show before retiring, was offended by the act and made known his displeasure in a message received by Little’s agent, the vast Music Corporation of America in New York.

Something less than adulation is also evident in Little’s singing impersonations cf the American-born supperclub baritone and TV star, Robert Goulet, who got his start in Canada. Whether

by coincidence or not, Goulet has conspicuously modified the extreme mannerisms in his style since Little began “doing” him as a purveyor of synthetic final consonants (“If ever I would leave you-UH!”) and other narcissistic preenings.

Whatever feelings he may harbor about his “victims,” Little looks at people and listens to them with a special eye and ear. In Toronto recently, between tapings of his new CBC Sunday radio program, The Rich Little Show, he summed up in his own words the individualizing things he sees and hears in several of his favorite subjects:

LESTER B. BEARSON: “I portray him as a kind of baggy, flappy little mole or tree toad. His voice is a tenor. He doesn’t have a real lisp, though it often sounds that way, but he gets his tongue mixed up somehow; it doesn’t ‘ride’ right in his mouth. The ‘s’ and the ‘p,’ in particular, bother him. It’s a sort of mushy sound, with a lot of spray and splatter. Of course I exaggerate his funny little walk: a kind of shuffle, with one leg stiffer than the other. He smites himself on the forehead for emphasis, and wipes his hands down his cheeks. But I don’t see anything selfimportant in his posture; there's a chuckly shyness in the midst of it all. He comes through, I think, as a very nice little guy.”

.JOHN DIEFENBAKER: “This has always been one of the hardest voices to get right, though 1 do him a lot. He’s a bit nasal; I would have to pinch my nose to get him really dead-on, which is fine on radio or records but no good on TV. He looks like a big white northern owl, and he has a voice that goes with it: a baritone, stern and rebuking. There’s an evangelistic timbre in it, a sort of Bible Belt religiosity — the Old Testament prophet in action. He keeps putting an ‘aaah’ prefix in front of words as if pausing to get the word exactly right. And of course he emphasizes with a lot of head-shakings and jowl-quiverings. He puts his hands on his hips, glaring down and around at the floor as though he’s hunting for something and is angry at himself because he can t remember what it is. He was a great courtroom lawyer before he went into politics, and obviously some of his mannerisms arc carry-overs from his old days as a master of juries.”

TOMMY DOUGLAS: “The leader of the New Democratic Party is not easy to describe, but he has a sound and manner all his own. His ancestry is Scottish, but he talks somewhat the way a Welsh tenor sings. The opening consonants explode and splash, and he stresses individual syllables more than most people do. ‘Political parties’ comes out something like ‘ppo-LITTT-ee-cal PPAAR-teez.’ There’s a lot of sustained ‘uhh’ in his sound, sometimes between words; a sort of back ing-and-f il ling or shifting of gears. Not much physical movement for an impersonator to work on, except a fair amount of fidgeting.”

.JACK BENNY: “A very / continued on page 36

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‘visual’ personality despite the fact that before he tackled TV many of his fans were afraid his familiar voice was his main comic asset. The resigned, long-suffering stare goes on, second after second, with hand to cheek, until with fabulous timing he breaks loose with a roar: ‘NOW CUT THAT OUT!’ Benny’s voice is a bass-baritone, perhaps even a bass; dry in sound, a bit grating, slow and heavy, with plenty of italics that you can see while he speaks. He’s without peer in getting an ad-libby, absent - minded feeling into lines that actually have been carefully scripted and rehearsed. Nobody can beat him in emphasizing a word. When he calls Dennis Day ‘a fresh kid,’ the last word comes out ‘k . . idd.’ ”

JOHN WAYNE: “His harsh bass voice has a rough, tough, don’t - give - a -damn sound, dull and rasping, almost proudly unmusical, with a lot of upward inflections at the ends of words. A funny thing about Wayne is that although he’s utterly masculine, his famous walk is almost a parody of a woman's walk: swivel-hipped, with a hit of a sway, one foot dragging a little.”

JAMES MASON: “It’s all in the teeth, all out front: a gloating, taunting

laugh. Every ‘s’ becomes ‘sss.’ He pronounces his own name ‘Mayssson.’ He’s a much more interesting actor since he stopped playing tormented heroes. Now he can forcefully convey decay and corruption with his voice alone.”

REX HARRISON: “A high English voice which swoops away up on emphasized words. He sounds veddy

upper crust, of course, and as opinionated as hell, hut never ponderous or boring. He was born to play Shaw’s Professor Higgins. There’s an air of amiable exasperation in almost everything he says; he’s partly amused, partly indignant at the constant follies of mankind. Harrison has great zest and polish in delivering a fine turn of phrase; epigrams are meat and drink to him.”

KIRK DOUGLAS: “He talks right

through his clenched teeth with a voice like tenor gravel.”

Rich Lrttle himself cannot explain how he is able to spin off one hundred and three split-second impersonations in three minutes with computerlike precision, as he did on a CBC television show a few months ago. “It is rather like a computer now,” he says, “the way I’ve got all those voices and mannerisms cardindexed in my mind, ready to yank out at a second’s notice. I’m always adding to my repertoire, hut there are a few voices that continue to defeat me. Among Canadians, I’ve tried and failed to do Pierre Berton and Gordon Sinclair, and among American entertainers I’m still working on Steve Allen and Boh Hope.”

Richard Caruthers Little, a rangy, brown-eyed six-footer, was horn in Ottawa in 1938, a third - generation Canadian descended from English stock on his father’s side and Irish on his mother’s. John Willson, one of his maternal ancestors, represented Wentworth in the Upper Canada parliament from 1824 to 1828. His greatgrandfather, William Caruthers-Little, was MP for South Simcoe from 1867 to 1881. Rich’s father, Dr. Lawrence P. Little, was a surgeon lieutenantcommander in the RCNVR during the

MACLEAN’S

war and then worked for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in Ottawa until his death in 1959. Rich coaxed his parents into enrolling him in Julia Murphy's drama class at the Ottaw'a Little Theatre. He began mimicking his teachers at Lisgar Collegiate and “doing voices” at parties. By the time he had reached his middle teens he had acted in scores of amateur stage plays and in two documentary movies for Crawley Films of Ottawa. He became a relief announcer at a local radio station, CFRA, and later a disc jockey at CJET in Smiths Falls, constantly practising his “voices” on the air. On the side he did comedy acts with Geoff Scott, whose talents as an impersonator almost matched his own. Scott now is parliamentary reporter for a Hamilton TV station, CHCH. The tw'o have remained close friends, and Scott is the only adviser who ever helps Rich sharpen up his impressions of Ottawa personalities.

Manager Gib Kerr, owner of Spotlight Studios in Ottawa, talked Rich into signing on with him after seeing him do his stuff at a purchasing agents’ banquet in the autumn of 1%0, but they didn't start working together until the following spring. “I didn’t dare tell him at first how vast were my ambitions for him.” says Kerr, a limber man of thirty-eight with a grey crewcut. “1 was afraid he'd write me off as a nut or a con man.” Kerr will follow Little to Hollywood when the impersonator moves there permanently this winter.

“Scrooge, my life is brief"

Little has recorded two LP discs for Capitol Records of Canada. My Fellow Canadians, in 1962, was mostly a collection of political lampoons and sold quite well, especially in Ottawa. Scrooge And The Stars, released in the early part of November 1963, was a twenty-two-voice, allRich playlet with “Jack Benny” as Scrooge in a reworking of the Charles Dickens story. It had to be withdrawn in haste a couple of weeks later after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. By a macabre coincidence, Little had cast JFK as the Spirit of Christmas Present, and the Little-simulated voice of the slain president could be heard saying sombrely, “Scrooge, my life upon the globe is brief; it ends tonight. In fact, it ends as fast as you can say your name.”

In December 1963 Little played his first United States engagement at Guy Lombardo’s Port-o’-Call, an inn and country dub in Tierra Verde, Florida. A month later came his first big break on U. S. television, a date on the Judy Garland show which made him a Name overnight.

Since then. Little has appeared successfully with Ed Sullivan. Jackie Gleason, Rudy Vallee. Mike Douglas. George Burns, Al Hirt and other TV notables. In Canada he has been interviewed on Telescope, Take 30, and the Pierre Berton program. His big-pay opportunities now are so numerous that he can afford to pick and choose w'ith care. Not long ago, for example, he turned down an invitation to perform at the Playboy Club in Chicago. Rich figured that the customers would be more interested in watching the leggy, busty bunnies on

(he staff than in concentrating on the spoken words of an impersonator.

For years he wrote or ad-libbed all his own material, often doing two or three shows a night without repeating himself once. Nowadays, however, the demands on his talents are so voracious that he recently bought ten thousand dollars’ worth of custom-tailored sketches from the Hollywood - based Canadian writing team of Frank Pcppiatt and John Aylesworth. Two other Canadian writers, Rich Eustis and AÍ Rogers, moved to Hollywood ahead of him and are preparing scripts for him, including a TV comedy-drama designed to star Little as a compulsive impostor who keeps getting into trouble by impersonating celebrities.

Little’s congested schedule for late 1965 and early '66 includes two weeks at the Golden Nugget Casino in Sparks, Nevada, appearance on TV with such stars as Dean Martin and Jimmy Dean, the launching of his new Canadian radio show, a year-end fortnight at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, and—squeezed in between these and other appointments—marriage to a shapely, twenty-four-year-old strawberry blonde named Jean Christopher. A former ice-show skater, she has been active in CBC television. Jean hit the headlines last summer when Room For A Stranger, a made-inToronto movie in which she portrays an unfaithful wife, was denounced in the House of Commons as a “sex orgy” by Ralph Cowan, Liberal MP for the Toronto riding of York-Humber. The film later was cleared by the Toronto police morality squad as “complying with contemporary community standards.”

Less bland on fuller acquaintance than he seems while chatting jovially with interviewers on TV, Little has his unconventional personal dislikes, including hockey, which he calls “a dull, boring game.” He is waspish with drunks and hecklers who menace his shows in cabarets. Once when a

fat middle-aged man in Los Angeles kept interrupting his impression of Liberace, Little turned toward his tormentor and beamingly addressed the crowd in Liberace’s oily voice: “Isn't she wunnerful? Aiy mother!” The drunk shut up and subsided into torpor. On another occasion a pest in Toronto’s Purple Onion coffee house loudly demanded that Rich do an impersonation of Lassie. “I’ll be glad to,” he retorted, “if you’ll come up here and be a tree.”

For the future. Rich Little dreams of becoming a movie actor doing versatile parts like those of Peter Sellers or Jack Lemmon, with his set-piece mimicries held “on the side, ready for use, like Jack Benny's violin.” He hopes sometime to invade Britain, where many of his Canadian fans expect him to become a sensational favorite. Meanwhile he is unquestionably the best and best-known impersonator in the business, and his abundant skills are clearly expanding year by year.

Two recent pieces of evidence made Little himself realize, almost sheepishly. how his fame has grown. One came from the deadpan American comedian, Joey Bishop, a member of Frank Sinatra’s inner circle in Hollywood, who told Little that his John Wayne takeoffs are all the rage with the clansmen. They endlessly compete among themselves in fruitless efforts to surpass the Canadian in rasping out. Wayne-fashion, the ritualistic words: “Aw right, listen an’ listen tight, or you’re dead where yuh sit!”

The other was an incident that happened in Saskatoon while Little was touring the western summer fairs. A visiting American boy of eleven, who knew nothing about Canadian politicians, turned on a television set and found Lester Pearson in the middle of a speech. The boy ran into the next room and told his father, “Hey, Dad, there’s somebody on TV imitating Rich Little!” ★