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‘The people I’ve been’- Rich Little talks show biz book

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Famed impressionist shares thoughts from his memoir “Little by Little”

For more than half a century, Rich Little has been the most famous impressionist on the planet. But from where does his amazing capacity for mimicry derive? How is it that a movie-obsessed kid from Ottawa became so firmly embedded in American entertainment culture that he is still a household name in 2017?

His recently-released book “Little by Little: People I’ve Known and Been” (7th Mind Publishing, $24.95) attempts to set the record straight while also offering wildly entertaining tales of his many celebrity encounters.

In “Little by Little,” Rich Little writes of going to the movies every weekend with his friends and reveling in their reaction when he would recreate the voices and characters they heard together.

“That was very important and it certainly played a role with me doing the characters’ voices but I was mimicking my teachers before that,” Little told me during a recent phone interview. “That got a great reaction and I knew this was going to be my career because it wasn’t long before the teachers imposed a two-drink minimum and a cover charge.”

After later working at the theater as an usher, Little discovered a new, larger audience in nightclubs and through his daily radio show, where he says he had “complete freedom” to incorporate multiple voices and characters.

“I would do the news as David Brinkley. I would do the women’s show as Dr. Ruth and I would do the teenage show in the afternoon as Elvis Presley. I was a one-man station. I was only getting paid one salary, though. That was the problem.”

Little released two successful comedy LPs in Canada which led to a spot on Judy Garland’s short-lived CBS musical-variety show in 1964. Little barely had time to unpack his suitcase before other offers began pouring in.

Little made multiple appearances on 1960s sitcoms, including “That Girl,” “Petticoat Junction” and “The Flying Nun;” he also became a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show” with host Johnny Carson.

Based on Carson’s seeming fondness for Little, viewers at home surmised that Little and Carson were good friends. The truth, Little says, is that they barely spoke to each other.

“Johnny was the best talk show host of all time. There’s no question of that,” he said. “But nobody could say they were good friends with Johnny Carson – not even his wives. Johnny was very difficult to get to know. You could say he was antisocial. The only time we really spoke to each other was during the commercial breaks. I never saw him before or after the show. He just didn’t have any friends.”

Still, Little loved doing his impression of Carson. And Carson (at least on camera) appeared to like it even more.

“I would sometimes get so into being Johnny when I would up there on the stage that I would walk off, go straight to my dressing room and write an alimony check,” Little joked (in Carson’s voice).

Most of the celebrities impersonated by Little appeared to appreciate the tribute, with one notable exception, according to Little.

“Paul Lynde hated my impression of him. I thought it was a gag at first but he just didn’t like it at all. Anytime I would do him on a Dean Martin roast or on “Hollywood Squares,” they would always cut to a shot of (Lynde) and he would say (in Paul Lynde’s voice) ‘Who’s that? Who’s he doing? Get him off the stage. Oh, that is disgusting!’”

Little recently appeared in the sci-fi short, “Fan-O-Rama,” an unofficial live-action adaptation of Matt Groening’s “Futurama.” Little had previously appeared in the animated TV series (with his head in a bottle) doing the voice of Howard Cosell.

“That was really fun to do,” Little said of the film. “I played Richard Nixon’s reanimated head in a bottle. It was kind of tough to do but who knows? It could lead to doing other heads in bottles. I’m sure some people would like to put Donald Trump’s head in a bottle (breaks into Trump impression). ‘We’re going to build a wall and it’s going to be a big and beautiful wall. It will be paid for by Walgreens. Or Walmart. Or Mark Wahlberg. It will be the best wall.’”

A decade ago, the movie-obsessed kid from Ottawa raised his hand and became a U.S. citizen, a moment that Little says was one of the highlights of his life.

“I was taking it all very seriously,” Little said, “but the judge wanted to swear me in as John Wayne. So I did. After the ceremony, I was afraid that I wasn’t actually a citizen but since it was the judge’s idea, I think I’m OK.” 

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