Doing impressions always came easily for Rich Little. Being funny, however, required a little more hard work.
“I really didn’t think I was a comic,” said Little, who will be at Proctors on Saturday to perform his one-man show about legendary actor Jimmy Stewart. “I knew I was a good impersonator, but then I realized, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I gotta say something funny, too. How am I going to do this? I’m not a comic.’ ”
One of the most recognizable faces on television in the late 1960s and throughout the 1980s, Little’s impressionist skills got him to Hollywood and “The Judy Garland Show” in 1964. Once there, he fine-tuned his act with the help of some of television’s best comic writers.
‘Rich Little in Jimmy Stewart: A Humorous Look at His Life’
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $50-$20
MORE INFO: 346-6204, www.proctors.org
“When you saw me on ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ and ‘Laugh-In,’ shows like that, they had these great writers that wrote stuff for me,” said Little. “If I did a ‘Dean Martin Roast,’ I had a writer writing for me. It was much later that I started to do my own writing.”
Because of the demise of the variety show, Little may not be all that familiar to younger television viewers. But while he may have stopped showing up on TV, he never stopped working. Canadian-born, he’s been living in Las Vegas since the 1960s and has remained a regular headliner there.
“It’s too expensive to do a variety show today,” said Little, “and they kind of went out of vogue, like Westerns. Everything seems to go out of style. It was great when we had Ed Sullivan and all these other variety shows in Hollywood. But tastes change, and they got too expensive.”
Choosing a subject
Now 74, Little concedes he hasn’t really updated his act that much. His current offering focuses on the life of Stewart, and the two became good friends before the actor died in 1997.
“I knew him so well, we would talk to each other all the time, so it made sense,” said Little, referring to his decision to do what he calls a one-man show about Stewart. “I’ve always wanted to do a one-man show, and I nearly did one about George Burns but it never came about. But Jimmy was the perfect choice. He worked with all of the great personalities that I’ve done throughout my career, so when I’m sitting down I’m Jimmy. When I stand up I’m some other celebrity like John Wayne.”
Little considered doing a one-man show about Ronald Reagan, but decided Stewart offered a better array of impersonations.
“I was thinking about Reagan, but who would I do other than him and a few other presidents,” said Little. “He didn’t work with that many great actors. My Errol Flynn is not that great. I do a very bad Ann Sheridan. And a Reagan show would have been about politics and that’s not what I wanted to do.”
Little was originally doing his Stewart show five nights a week at The Hilton in Las Vegas. He has cut back to three nights a week, and hopes to take the show to Broadway.
“I’ll be a great overnight success or a one-night experience, depending on the critics,” he said. “But I’ve never done Broadway, so that would be nice. I don’t know how long I would do it. Those people are amazing. They do seven, eight shows a week.”
Irking his teachers
Born and raised in Ottawa, Little began his show business career as an actor in community theater.
“I did a little serious theater work when I was a teenager, but I knew I could do impressions, and I knew I could be really good at it when my teachers would get angry with me for answering them in their voice. It might have been the wrong answer, but the other kids thought I was wonderful, and when you’re a kid in school you love being popular.”
He became a big star in Canada with his impression of Canadian prime minister John Diefenbaker.
“What a character he was,” remembered Little. “He was perfect for impressionists. I put out an album doing Diefenbaker and my fellow Canadians loved it. That really got me going in Canada.”
That success led to an appearance on the “Jimmy Dean Show.” Then his huge break came when he sat next to Judy Garland on her show a couple of weeks later.
“I was very nervous, but I thought I did very well,” Little said of his work on Garland’s show. “It was her reaction that was great. She kept on breaking up at everything I did and asking me to do more.”
Little went on to appear on several television shows, and not only variety shows. He went for laughs on “That Girl” and “Love Boat” but also performed in dramas like “Hawaii Five-O,” “Police Woman” and “Murder She Wrote.” And in 1996, he portrayed Johnny Carson in HBO’s “The Late Shift,” a film about the late-night TV wars between Jay Leno and David Letterman. Daniel Roebuck played Leno and John Michael Higgins was Letterman.
“I don’t know how factual the movie actually was, but Johnny apparently liked it, and that was good,” said Little. “The thing I remember most is how awfully good those two guys were playing Jay and Dave.”
Sworn in as John Wayne
In 2008, Little became a U.S. citizen.
“I’ve been in the States since 1964, and I really owe them everything, so now I have dual citizenship,” said Little. “The day I became a citizen the judge wanted to swear me in as John Wayne, and I went along with it. He had a great sense of humor, and we ended up putting on a show in his chambers.”
Little says he will never stop doing impressions of the celebrities that helped make him famous. Stewart, Carson and Wayne will always be a part of the show, and you can also expect to hear from Henry Fonda, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn to name a few.
“My newest impression is of Dr. Phil [McGraw], but I took him out of the show because he didn’t seem to work that well,” said Little. “I am constantly tweaking the show and trying to make it better, and I do a few people that are still alive.”
Little, whose third wife, Marie, died in 2003, has been married four times and has one daughter. He doesn’t dwell on his personal life, but at the conclusion of his show he does offer the audience an opportunity to ask him questions.
“They ask me how old I am, how many impressions I do, and they ask me about that,” said Little, referring to his four marriages. “The show is all about comedy, but the last six minutes is pretty heartwarming, and then I take some questions.”
Some people ask him why they don’t make comedians like they used to.
“Yeah, you don’t see anybody like George Burns or Jack Benny or Milton Berle out there today,” he said. “I watch comics today and they’re pretty dirty and pretty blue. Some of the roasts I’ve gone to lately have been really gross. I wouldn’t go on national TV and use that kind of language. That’s not my image. That’s not me.”