Early in his career, comedian Rich Little became known as “the man of 1,000 voices,” and many of those belonged to American presidents! He’s famously impersonated every commander in chief since Richard Nixon.
“I was known as the guy that did Richard Nixon, but I think that Ronald Reagan was probably my best impression. And Reagan loved my impression!” Rich, 82, tells Closer. “Jimmy Carter was also a great voice to do. And George Bush Sr. and George Bush Jr. — every president is different.” Rich has also kept up with the times and created voices for modern POTUS Joe Biden and Donald Trump. However, one recent president had him stymied. “Barack Obama — that was a very tough voice. I just couldn’t find the hook for him,” says Rich.
Now, the still young-at-heart funnyman has come full circle. He recently made his theatrical debut playing the 37th holder of the Oval Office in Trial on the Potomac: The Impeachment of Richard Nixon, an off-Broadway play in New York. After the show wrapped on Sept 4., he returned to his longtime gig at the Tropicana, Rich Little: Live in Las Vegas! An update of his book Little by Little: People I’ve Known and Been is also due out this month.
Did you always want to be in showbiz?
“Oh, yeah. Always. Yeah, yeah. I was a big movie buff and loved movies. I love film stars. Admired them so much I started imitating them. But before I became an impersonator, I was doing a lot of acting. Then I started imitating my teachers. That’s how I started doing impressions.”
Who was the first celebrity you imitated?
“Jimmy Stewart. And then I got to know him, and he was a great man. We had a lot of fun over the years, doing things together. I remember one time, at a charity event we did, he said, ‘I’m very fond of Rich Little, and I was thinking of adopting him. Gloria, my wife, said, ‘No, Jim. No, no, no, no. Two people around the house going wah wah wah wah wah would be one too many.’ ”
What do you think you would have done if your showbiz career didn’t take off?
“I was a disc jockey when I was a teenager. And I don’t know whether I would have pursued that or not, but I always had show business in the back of my mind. I slowly started to do impersonations of local politicians and television performers, and everything sort of skyrocketed from there. Then when I came down from Canada, because I’m a Canadian, to do Judy Garland’s show — that’s when my career really took off.”
What was Judy like?
“Judy was great. She never came to rehearsal though, so she only saw my routine when we filmed it. And it got such a great reaction because she had never seen me do it at rehearsal because she was never there! So, if you watch that routine today — the one that I did in ’64 — you’re going to be looking at her because she’s reacting like crazy while I’m doing all the voices.”
Who were some of the other celebrities you enjoyed working with ?
“I loved working with Julie Andrews. And Doris Day. I did her show — she was wonderful. And Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball. I’ve done both their shows and a lot of variety shows in the ’70s. I was on a variety show almost every week.”
Speaking of the ’70s, that’s when you started doing The Tonight Show, right?
“I hosted it 32 times! The Tonight Show was great for my career because everybody watched it. And then I had a falling-out. I could never get an answer on why. But I still have great memories of Johnny Carson because he was a great impression for me to do, and I got a lot of mileage out of doing him. The Tonight Show, the Hollywood Squares and the Dean Martin roasts are probably the three shows that helped my career more than any other.”
Was there ever a star that didn’t like your impression of them?
“Yeah, Paul Lynde from the Hollywood Squares. Hated my impression. Made faces every time I did him. Looked into the camera and said, ‘Who’s he doing? Who’s that? Get a day job. Oh, God.’ He hated my impression. Absolutely hated it. I thought he was gonna strangle me one night. I really did.”
Was your Richard Nixon impression the one that really put you on the map?
“He was one of the first people I impersonated when I came down from Canada. I was kind of known as the guy that did Richard Nixon. And I got a lot of mileage out of doing him, too. I did a lot of Nixon back in the ’60s, you know, and here I am, more than 60 years later doing Nixon again. It’s kind of ironic that I’ve gone back to Nixon.”
You’re talking about your off-Broadway theatrical debut in Trial on the Potomac?
“It’s very interesting. It doesn’t say whether Nixon was innocent or guilty. It leaves you to form your own opinion by the end of the play. If they had a trial for Richard Nixon and he defended himself and you heard all the facts that came out, would you change your opinion about them? People vote at the end of the play, whether they think he’s guilty or innocent.”
You’re also busy with your show at the Tropicana in Las Vegas.
“I’ve been there for five years. I took a month off to do this play, but now I’m going back. I was there four or five months ago, and nobody else was performing [because of the pandemic]. People were wearing masks, and nobody was close to one another, but it was great to be back.”
Were the people there appreciative of getting out again to see your show?
“I had a kid come and see my show. He sat down in the front. He was about 15 years old and laughed his head off. He was in hysterics. I saw him in the casino after the show was over. I said, ‘You seem to enjoy my show.’ He said, ‘Mr. Little, you’re funny. Oh my God. I thought it was great. But I was confused.’ And I said, ‘You were confused about what?’ He said, ‘Well, as you were performing, I kept wondering why you kept changing your voice.’”
Ha! Any words of wisdom you live by?
“Do your best at whatever you’re doing. Don’t give up. Stick with it and see what happens.”