Readers of No Applause may have gleaned that I am not a fan of impressionist Rich Little (b. 1938), but I’ve had occasion to mention him here a few times, so I thought it advisable to create a little post to link to containing something about his background.
The Ottawa native first made it big doing impersonations of Canadian politicians in nightclubs, on radio and on record albums. We have Mel Torme to blame for booking him on The Judy Garland Show in 1964, introducing him to American audiences. The 1960s and ’70s were his most successful period, when he was given the opportunity to perform his facile, exaggerated celebrity impersonations on the tv variety and talk shows of Steve Allen, Jackie Gleason, Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, John Davidson, David Frost, Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin etc, as well as Hollywood Squares, Laugh-In, The Hollywood Palace, and many others. He was a regular on The ABC Comedy Hour (1972), and he achieved the pinnacle with his own variety program The Rich Little Show in 1976.
Variety success also got him cast on sitcoms and tv dramas like Judy Carne’s sitcom Love on a Rooftop (1966-67), That Girl, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, The Flying Nun, Love American Style, and Hawaii Five-0. He was also originally in Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, but scheduling problems (and possibly a bad performance) meant that most of Little’s performance wound up on the cutting room floor.
The thing about Rich Little is and was that compared to his contemporaries and many who came afterward…he’s not very good. His impressions range from the passable to the wretched, and then he turns up the hokum by exaggerating certain mannerisms of his characters to the point of intolerability. These lowest common denominator tactics garner howls from the masses, I suppose (or did, but since he hasn’t really refreshed his repertoire in 40 years, the portion of the audience who even recognizes his stable of voices has largely died off). I seem to recall he does Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, George Burns, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, James Cagney, Jimmy Stewart, Burt Lancaster, W.C. Fields, Richard Nixon, and Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker. I turned on the TV not long ago and he was doing one of his more current impressions, Ronald Reagan. On the most recent clip I saw of him he was expressing his support for Donald Trump. I’m not usually quite this mean, but…no. I won’t say it. You know what I’m thinking. It involves a shovel and some dirt.