Rich Little, in his own image

GIVING AMERICA WHAT IT WANTS

Marci McDonald February 9 1976

Rich Little, in his own image

GIVING AMERICA WHAT IT WANTS

Marci McDonald February 9 1976

Rich Little, in his own image

GIVING AMERICA WHAT IT WANTS

Marci McDonald

In the coffeeshop of the Skokie Hilton, a ripple of alarm swells up from a back banquette of simulated leather. A flutter of panic floats over the plastic wood table and rises above the sea of Sanka and soggy Wonder Bread. The worst, after all, may be happening. Right now on this drizzly, winter afternoon, right here on the barren concrete entrails of this suburban Chicago freeway, the Voice may be coming down with a cold.

Rich Little cocks his ear to the cadence of it like somebody trying out a new stereo. He clears his throat and listens, as if to some distant detached mechanical thing. He coughs, tentatively. Testing, testing, one, two, three. Do you hear mel Too early to tell. It is 2.30 p.m., midday to the rest of the world but practically dawn to Rich Little who is just finishing up breakfast. The Voice—he always refers to it in the third person—the Voice is never at its best at breakfast. Too deep. Too heavy on the bass. Still, this does not seem to be just another ordinary deep bass morning. A cloud passes over the round countenance which, when it is not mugging, is surprisingly blank.

“A sore throat,” mutters Rich Little, massaging the Adam’s Apple under his turtleneck. “I’m terrified of getting a sore throat.” He despatches his road manager, Mel Bishop, for 222s. He disappears into the folds of his elegant sheared calf coat with the fur lapels and wraps a yellow wool muffler around his neck. He ventures gingerly outside the glass door and into a waiting black limousine, where he sinks into the upholstery with a shiver. “Other people get a cold, and they just get a cold,” he says. “I get a cold and John Wayne gets a cold, Orson Welles gets a cold, Nixon gets a cold. I get a cold and it’s all over.”

But the truth of the matter is that for Rich Little it is only just beginning. If he can just get through this last one-week stand at Chicago’s Mill Run Theatre, this one last whistle stop through Middle America, he knows that back home in the palmy California breezes of NBC’S beautiful downtown Burbank studios, he has a fling at the brass ring that will allow him to come in permanently out of the draft. On February 2, when his own TV series hits the airwaves, he can legitimately thumb his turned-up nose at all those sages who took one look at him 10 years ago—the kid who arrived fresh from Canada with a larynx chock full of 64 voices—and told him he might as well go back home and be content as a discjockey in Smiths Falls.

“They told me I’d have to get into something else,” he says. “They said, ‘No impersonator has ever made it. You can’t become a star just doing impressions.’ Well, here I am.” Yes, here he is, the impersonator with his face on the cover of Esquire and his life story unfolding in the pages of New York magazine. His schedule is booked solid with $ 100,000 club dates and Johnny Carson guest spots, with a brandnew two-million-dollar, two-year contract for Las Vegas where Merv Griffin has hailed him as “the biggest smash” and the stars regularly turn up to see themselves aped at his shows like cultists burning fires at their very own shrine. “It’s funny,” he says, “how things come around.”

Not that, for Rich Little, they haven’t been long enough in the turning. Nothing points it up more than the small pale dumpling of a man who sinks into the limousine seat beside him on the ride to the Mill Run Theatre, his once firm crooner’s cheeks now slackened into loose flesh, his former spunky little child star’s frame now sunk into paunch. In 1964, Mel Tormé was a production bigwig on the Judy Garland TV show and got Rich Little his start on American TV. It is a story Rich Little will tell more than 10 times on radio and TV talk shows over the next two days: How Mel Tormé had met him on a Canadian TV show called Parade and been so impressed he brought one of his voice tapes to La Garland, how he nagged and plugged and kept at her, until finally the rest was history-even if it was played at a slow tempo and with a bittersweet twist. Now, 11 years later, Mel Tormé is the opening act for Rich Little.

Still, on the Mill Run marquee Rich Little has insisted that both their names loom the same size, and inside at rehearsal it is difficult sometimes to make out who is the star and who is the supporting cast. Rich Little whips through his act, with one eye constantly on the front row for reassurance. “Hey, Mel, hey, Mel,” he calls out, racing through a pratfall for the third time when Tormé has let his glance wander. “Hey, Mel, get this,” he beams, like some preschooler begging time for his cartwheels during an adults-only dinner party. But later his silly putty features lapse into High Seriousness as he rides back alone to the hotel for a chopped steak and a glass of milk, wholesome fare, nothing fancy. His mind is not on the food, but something else. What that something else is immediately becomes clear when he starts to massage his larynx. “I’ve got to get some rest,” he says sombrely, riding up in the elevator. “I’ve got to get some rest. . . for the Voice. I’m sure I’m gonna get a cold.”

In the tiered womb of the Mill Run Theatre, Middle America has gathered. No dizzying glitter of furs, gowns and jewels in attendance, no blinding dazzle of demimonde chic here. No, this is more like one mad blaze of drip-dry polyester and wash-’n’-wear crimpolene. They stream down the aisles, overstuffed matrons in lime-green pantsuits with dangly earrings, trailing plump expressionless kids behind them; conventioneers with name tags pinned to their no-iron plaid lapels and white plastic shoes. It is scarcely past suppertime but they all seem to be carting emergency supplies in case of famine, arms laden with potato chips, pretzels and candy bars, fleshy fingers balancing hot dogs and little cardboard trays of cocktails in plastic glasses. Even at the theatre, Middle America doesn’t like to be without something to consume. They settle into their seats but there is no flurry of anticipation. They wait, chewing and swallowing with bored automatic mandibles, staring out with vacant hollow gazes that say, “Amuse me.”

Now, as the houselights dim, they turn their eyes to the small circular stage in midtheatre where Rich Little bounds on in a red tuxedo. “Cute,” clucks the woman beside me, showing an uncanny knack for summing up a situation. This little red tux with the vest attached; the white ruffled shirt undone to reveal the spiffy gold Sagittarius medal dangling high up on his collarbone above just enough bared chest— though nothing more daring than your average Rotarian would venture; the shiny white patent shoes. There is something about Rich Little that is so ... clean. So ... boyish! Looking at him here, rolling his eyes when his stories verge on the naughty, bouncing into some delighted front-row housewife’s lap, who would ever guess he was a man of 37 years? Offstage, it sometimes does not work quite so well. The face can take on a pinched look that is at war with the features. In the harsh light of day, the hair can reveal too much telltale grey. But here, under the spotlights, it all comes together, the twinkling eyes, the puckish grin, the gleaming Buster Brown coiffure that his wife’s sister still cuts and which he is so careful about that he never seems to step outside without shielding his curled bangs from the wintry blast. As Mel Bishop, his road manager, says, watching from the sidelines, “Rich is the boy next door.”

Mel Bishop says that right away folks can tell Rich Little is one of them, not stuck up, just an ordinary guy. “Everybody,” he says, “likes Rich.” Indeed, in the secret and all-powerful Q Ratings that are researched for TV networks to determine a performer’s appeal—and ultimately his bankability in a series—Rich Little, who scored only twenty-second among comedians as far as being well known, nevertheless calibrated righ't up there in third spot behind Bob Hope and Carol Burnett when it came to likability. It so impressed NBC that they promptly rushed him into his own special last September, and now his own series, and if this audience is any gauge at all clearly they knew what they were doing. Here in the heart of corn country, Rich Little has them rolling in the aisles.

It is a good show. A pleasant and amusing show. Nothing brilliant, but then nothing disturbing either. I watch it for two nights straight and still laugh at all of the same coy lines. The voices are uncanny. The booming bump and grind of Tom Jones burling himself through Delilah, the moody croon of Bing Crosby, the nasal whine of W. C. Fields musing over Alcoholics Anonymous, “Ah yes, ah yes, that’s where you go into a bar and don’t have to give your name.” But it is not until his takeoff of James Mason’s speech to Judy Garland from A Star Is Born where Rich Little has Mason intoning adenoidally that in a career, “Talent is not enough ... timing is everything,” that it suddenly becomes clear just why Rich Little is so hot, so likable, so perfect a star in the showbiz firmament right now.

For in a time when America is so desperately groping to regain its own voice, it is perhaps not entirely insignificant that the hottest thing in entertainment should be a man with 164 voices. In a nation shorn of its innocence, shattered by Watergate and still reeling from a reality that has become at times too painful to confront, it may not be entirely inappropriate that a man who does imitations should suddenly find himself king. Rich Little is the purveyor of reality one step removed, of the good old days, time-capsuled and untarnished. He is the triumph of ersatz. James Stewart is old and sunken-cheeked now, John Wayne is fat and bald as a new peach under his toupé and cowboy hat, and Elvis Presley has become a paunchy overdressed caricature of himself. But through Rich Little they come sifted down, enshrined as one would like to have them, preserved without pain in time and memory. He brings a shell-shocked America its past without judgment, its shames and sorrows winnowed down to just good clean fun. Here, Gerald Ford becomes a harmless bumbler, wordlessly falling down the stage steps. Richard Nixon is reduced to a jowly used car salesman for Milhous Motors— “formerly Watergate Dodge—I have a little number here driven once by a little old lady from Whittier, Rose Mary Woods—one of the pedals is missing.” No sting here, no bite, no quick clever twist of the knife—indeed, some critics rail, no wit at all. They carp that Rich Little is all style and no content—that he has gotten his voices down perfectly but then has nothing to say. But watching the standing ovation at the end of the show, all cheers and goodnatured huzzas, I can only wonder: if Rich Little is saying nothing to America, then perhaps that is precisely what America wants to hear.

Rich Little has come down with a cold. At least it sounds like a cold. It is early the next morning and he struggles out to the limousine for a radio talk show like some sleepwalker in a baby-blue leather jacket, only grunting now and then in a feeble frightening wheeze. “The only voice I’m gonna be able to do today,” he rasps glumly, “is the sound of shifting sand.” But an hour later, by airtime, he has run through Orson Welles, John Huston and Walter Brennan, and is beginning to sound more like Rich Little—whatever that is. For two days I listen for the sound of his real voice and it eludes me. It dips and veers from low and nondescript to high, thin and nondescript. “My own voice is nothing that could be imitated,” he admits. “It’s what you call middle of the road.” Singing in it, as he does onstage, he sounds suddenly unsure, sometimes downright flat. “I can hit some notes as Robert Goulet or Frank Sinatra that I can’t in my own voice,” he says. “Once I sang in my own voice and I heard this guy in the front row lean over to his wife and say, loud, ‘Who’s he doing, Myrtle? Is he doing Cagney?’ ”

For a long time he couldn’t work up the courage to use Rich Little’s voice at all. “I didn’t feel comfortable about Rich Little,” he says, “because I was doing other people’s lines. I was uptight and nervous. I worried too much.” Now he worries less, and he and his British-born wife, Jeanne, who once worked as Joey Bishop’s secretary, write most of his material. “I had a little talk with myself and realized I had to get my own personality into the act,” he says. “I wasn’t giving the audience any of my own personality.” Not that his own personality has always made a resounding impression. When his agent used to tell producers that Rich Little wanted to do something in his own voice for a change, he would find the producer suddenly asking, puzzled, “Does he have one?”

Nevertheless, Rich Little insists that he has never had an identity crisis—although there are those unkind enough to suggest that to have an identity crisis you have to first have an identity. A Village Voic-e reporter who set out to find the real Rich Little came back after one backstage meeting and a two-hour interview with the impression of . . . “Nothing: no warmth, no strength; no lack of warmth, no lack of strength; nothing.” For two days I try to probe beneath the nonstop showbiz anecdotes and talk show patter only to find yet more showbiz anecdotes and talk show patter. After one particularly long introspective silence., he finally offers up the insightful tidbit, “The two shows that have meant most to my career are Johnny Carson and Hollywood Squares.” Mel Bishop provides no deeper clue. “Hmmm, what does Rich like to do?” he ponders. “Well, he loves to sit out in the sun . . . And he loves to buy shirts. If he has nothing to do, Rich goes shopping in town and buys shirts.”

But mostly, it seems, Rich Little watches TV. The late show. The early show. All grist for the larynx. He spends hours studying the TV Guide, and when he can’t attend to the task in person he sets his electric timers and video tape recorders back home in his Malibu Beach house to catch it for him.

It was the same when he was a kid growing up in Ottawa, the middle of three sons of a well-to-do-doctor, when he gobbled up the movies greedily, begged to join the Little Theatre at age 12 and was always the ham at school. His room always overflowed with fan magazines and movie posters, film clips of his heroes and tapes of their inimitable tones. For if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Rich Little is the ultimate fan. After nearly 20 years in the business, he can still go on for hours.about talking to Cary Grant over the phone, playing all the parts. “I mean, meeting Cary Grant—whew!” he boggles. “I still see some big stars and have to struggle to stay cool.”

The very next day he will give up a free afternoon for the chance to meet Michael Caine on yet another TV talk show, scampering around him, grinning, impersonating, posing for a picture together like some awkward overeager spaniel. “I only do this for the love of the movies and the people,” he says.

He shrugs off claims that he has no message, takes no exception whatsoever to the critics who say his political satire is about as barbed as a muffin. “I just treat politicians like I do Ed Sullivan or Howard Cosell—as interesting people with voices,” he says. Nixon is the closest he comes to vicious, “and I try to keep Nixon as a little comic figure, not too biting or too cruel.” Even three years ago when Nixon invited him to a San Clemente celebrity garden party and Debbie Reynolds flung him in front of the then President saying, “Rich is going to do you sir!” Rich Little shrank from the face-off. “I stood there and I noticed the more I scrunched up and huddled over and twisted my face, the more he did too. I kind of panicked. All the wonderful lines from my act, I thought, ‘Oh, no.’ I didn’t have the nerve. And he just didn’t seem to get it, didn’t even crack a smile and turned and walked away.” Rich Little was relieved. He had already had one bad experience when a routine on Lyndon Johnson got him lambasted by a New York columnist, canceled by the Copacabana and threatened by so many cranks that he hired two bodyguards. “I don’t like to offend,” he says. “I’m not brilliant with a high IQ. I’m no comic genius like Don Rickies. As for leaving people with some message or making them think—I absolutely don’t. 1 only want to entertain, to make people laugh and forget for a while.”

As I leave the King of the Impersonators stretched out on a couch in his hotel suite girding himself to help America forget, and still nursing his elusive cold, it suddenly strikes me: this whole bit about doing impressions, this whole question of having 164 identities and never, clearly, one of one’s own—isn’t there something terribly Canadian about it all?1^?