Leavin' Em Laughing
Rich Little, the man of 200 voices, likes to say his career started trying to impress classmates. To get dates, he’d find out a girl’s favorite actor and call her up imitating that actor’s voice. Then, when Little showed up, he’d say, “Sorry, Cary [Grant] can’t make it.” That talent for impersonation would eventually earn him a Hollywood Star and a matching one in Canada.
Little was born in Ottawa, Canada, the child of a doctor and a homemaker. In the 1950s, it didn’t get much further from Hollywood than that, and even though he could always make his classmates laugh, Little never dreamed he would one day befriend presidents and charm movie stars.
When I reach comedian Rich Little on the phone, he is instantly engaging and remains so through turns both thoughtful and hilarious. Little’s vitality is no real surprise—he recently broke a record with the Tropicana in Las Vegas as their longest-running engagement. This is after more than 50 years in show business, sharing stages with legends like Frank Sinatra, George Burns, Cary Grant, and John Wayne. Name a TV variety show from that era worth mentioning, and Little was on it: Ed Sullivan’s, Jackie Gleason’s, Glen Campbell’s, Dean Martin’s, Laugh-In, the list goes on. He guest hosted The Tonight Show 12 times, was a regular on The Hollywood Squares, and had his own variety show in the ’70s. He took the time to talk to us about a life in comedy and his new book, Little by Little: People I’ve Known and Been.
American Senior When did you decide to write this book?
Rich Little I always wanted to write a book, but I didn’t want to write a book about my life because I don’t think it’s that interesting. But a book about the people I have known and worked with through the years, that would be interesting—and funny! So this is not a biography at all. I had kept a diary for years, and the diary certainly helped because the memory is not always there.
AS Wait, you have had a really long career, when did you start keeping a diary?
RL I started when I was about 20, just writing down little things that happened during the day or funny things that involved a celebrity.
AS Were you from a funny family? How did this passion for comedy begin?
RL I am the only person in my family who does comedy professionally, but my brothers are pretty funny, too. We always clowned around a lot, y’know, doing voices and being mischievous. I got interested in impressions because of my love for movies and actors. I started imitating the teachers; when teachers asked me a question in class, I would answer in their voice, and it was usually the wrong answer so that infuriated them [laughs].
AS At what point did it go from just clowning around to “this is what I want to do”?
RL When I started making some money at it [chuckles]. When I was asked to perform at Shriners conventions or Knights of Columbus things around Ottawa, and they were paying me 5 or 10 dollars for a show. That’s when I thought, “Oh my God, I didn’t realize there was money in this.” I was just doing it as a hobby, but as soon as I started to make a little pocket change, which was better than my paper route, I took it a little more seriously. And it was the reaction I would get. I was imitating local politicians, the prime minister, a few movie stars, television performers, but when I saw the reaction I was getting, even from imitating teachers in school, I thought I might be onto something.
AS Okay, so how did that become this amazing lifetime in comedy? Can you pinpoint any moments that, for lack of a better term, were your big breaks?
RL Well, getting on The Judy Garland Show in 1964. That’s my big break because that brought me to the United States. That was a huge step because I started to become an entertainer in the U.S. and move up … things were okay in Canada, but I don’t think I would have become an international name if I had stayed there.
AS Tell me about that experience and how you got onto the show in the first place.
RL I got onto The Judy Garland Show because I became friends with the singer Mel Tormé. Mel was a great friend of mine, we worked together on a television variety show** and he heard me do my voices. I was doing people that no one had ever done. Anyway, Mel went to work for The Judy Garland Show after we met, and he played her a tape of that—I did of all my voices. She didn’t seem interested at all until she heard my impression of James Mason. When she heard my James Mason, she lit up, because she had done a movie with him called A Star is Born. It was really that impression that got me on the show, and when I ran into James Mason a few years later, I thanked him for getting me on The Judy Garland Show. He didn’t know what the hell I was talking about [laughs].
AS So … was that impression just on there by chance or did you have inside information?
RL Well, I did a lot of voices on this tape, but I did know she liked James Mason. It was one of my better impressions. She had told Mel she didn’t like impersonators at all, but she heard my James Mason and said, “Book him on the show.” You want to know another turning point; getting on television. Having my own television series on ABC back in the ‘70s. The Rich Little Show was a big move for me, having your own variety show … it only lasted a year, but that was a big one. And before that, but after the Garland show, I did a situation comedy called Love on a Rooftop that only lasted one season, but those were big stepping stones.
AS You are always on the stage, the one in the spotlight, but let’s flip that around for a second: When is the last time you were impressed by someone else?
RL Oh well, I was really impressed by Brad Garrett, from Everybody Loves Raymond. I knew he was an actor, but I didn’t realize what a good comedian he is, he is one of the best. As far as an actor, I am a big fan of Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad, and he was doing LBJ on Broadway and I gave him a few tips on imitating Lyndon Johnson that he actually used in the show. So, that was a bit of a thrill.
AS Dare I ask …?
RL [chuckling] I told him to put the glasses on the tip of his nose, then look up through the top of your glasses and squint your eyes.
AS You have been doing this for so long, you have seen so many styles of comedy and entertainment come and go, legends and fads alike … I want to talk about what that’s like now.
RL Well, there are things I miss; I miss theatres-in-the-round, I miss the movies I watched as a kid. In terms of comedy, though, when I was growing up, you had people who told jokes. You had Henny Youngman, Myron Coleman … there were a lot of people who told jokes. No one tells jokes today, it’s all observational humor, things that have happened to them in real life. Also, they can say whatever they want nowadays—the F-word is no big deal—it’s a whole different type of comedy.
Every night, after my show at the Tropicana, they have a comedy show called The Laugh Factory, and most of these young comics don’t have an act. They come out and bounce off people in the audience: “Where are you from, is this your girlfriend,” and that’s okay for Don Rickles, but … if your act is going to depend on improvising off the audience, it’s very, very risky.
AS Tell me something that might surprise people.
RL What a great sense of humor Ronald Reagan had. He loved jokes, I always had to give him a joke. Most of the presidents do have a good sense of humor; Nixon didn’t because he was pretty stuffy. I once imitated Nixon in front of him, and he didn’t even know I was doing it. I was invited to a Hollywood party in San Clemente in ‘64 or ‘65, Nixon is there and I ended up doing my impression in front of him and he’s looking puzzled. So he turns to his wife Pat and said [effortlessly slips into Nixon impression] “Why is that young man speaking in this strange voice?” [laughs uproariously]. But I did a pretty good Nixon though because when his wife left the party, she left with me. Just kidding!
Dzana Tsomondo is a freelance writer who lives and works in New York City.