Born in the Canadian capital of Ottawa toward the end of the Depression, impressionist and voice actor Richard Caruthers "Rich" Little worked as a DJ and comic at local clubs before heading out in his 20s to New York and Hollywood to launch a career that has sustained him for more than half a century.
His masterful impersonations of President Richard M. Nixon and Johnny Carson gained him worldwide attention in the 1970s, but Little is celebrated for his extraordinary versatility, earning him the nickname "the man of a thousand voices."
Little, 78, spends most of his time in Las Vegas, where he has a regular show at the Tropicana. But he'll make a rare appearance on the East Coast for three nights Thursday through Saturday at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City.
A phone conversation with Little is a bit like a magical mystery tour through showbiz history. Ask him about his friendships with an entertainer or politician, be it Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan, Kirk Douglas, Dean Martin — even Bette Davis — and he'll slip effortlessly into their personas as he recalls the times he spent with them.
What are you doing in your show these days?
I'm doing a number of things. Doing a little Donald Trump. I do a story about Ronald Regan that's in my book — you know I have a book out now [Little by Little: People I've Known and Been: Rich Little]. It's a very humorous story about Ronald Reagan and Bette Davis.
Nothing salacious, I hope?
Oh, no. Well, I just phoned up Bette Davis one day as Jimmy Stewart, and it upset her and she didn't like it. So Reagan phoned her up and he said he thought [my Jimmy Stewart] was funny. And she told him to go to hell.
She thought it was me doing Reagan calling her to say I liked me doing Jimmy Stewart.
Lay it on me. Who else will you do Friday?
I do a little tribute to Dean Martin. … I do a number of routines on people like Andy Rooney from 60 Minutes, and I talk about my early career and being on Ed Sullivan and the Dean Martin roasts.
And I show a lot of clips in my show now, of a lot of the real people I impersonate. If I do George Burns, I then show me with George Burns, and if I do John Wayne, I show a clip of me with John Wayne. And then I also show a lot of my artwork. I've sketched hundreds and hundreds of portraits. Everyone I impersonate, I show their sketch.
My show is kind of a mini history of my career.
The personal connection seems important to you: You have known or been friends with many of the people you impersonate.
I think the people I admire most are probably my best impressions, you know. The more I get to know about them personally, the better the impression.
Was there anyone in those early years who really took you under his wing?
Oh yeah. Jimmy Stewart did. I was very close to Jimmy. I knew him socially and professionally, and we did a lot of shows together. The thing about Jimmy is that he had a great sense of humor and great timing. He was just a wonderful man and a wonderful American. I talk about him, too, in the act.
Last year, you told a reporter that all your friends from those early years are long gone, except for Don Rickles and Ruth Buzzi.
And Don died earlier this year. I was close to Don, yeah. … He was very unique. There's never been a comedian like him — the fastest mind of all time. I would say he and Robin Williams probably had the quickest minds of any comedian I have ever known.
Have there been impressions that you've never quite felt you got right?
Oh, yeah. I was never very happy with my Barack Obama. Of course, I was never a big fan of his, and maybe I didn't work on him as hard as I should have. There's been quite a few I wasn't happy with.
While you've done a lot of politicians, you never do political humor.
I never try to make a point, politically, in my humor. I've never been a political satirist. I always go for the comedy and never try to make a political point. I think it's a mistake when you do. If you think about Johnny Carson, you never knew whether he was Democrat or a Republican. He took a shot at everybody, and that's the way it should be.
You've done a lot of presidents. Any of them ever express disapproval or rebuke you?
George Bush Sr. eventually liked my impression, but when I first started doing him, he wasn't happy. I remember Jeb told me my impression of his father "stank." It got a lot better after that.
You also got some feedback from Richard Nixon, didn't you?
I did Nixon in front of Nixon, and he didn't know I was doing him.
You had to explain it to him?
Well, Nixon never had much of a sense of humor. He was pretty stiff, and if he did smile, it was kind of phony, kind of like what Ed Sullivan did. They had that phony smile. … I don't think Trump has much of a sense of humor, either.
What's your take on the Trump presidency?
I think he's more popular than the media lets on. … A lot of people criticize him for being tough on North Korea, but I think they kind of admire that about him, because the United States has been kind of weak for a lot of years and I think it's good to have a strong leader.
Is President Trump a fan?
I have met him a couple of times over the years, [before he was in the White House], and he was always nice and very complimentary, but I don't think he has a great sense of humor. I guess presidents don't have much to laugh about.
None of them?
The exception to the rule was Reagan; he loved comedy, he loved humor, he loved jokes. Reagan was just down-to-earth, very astute, very interested in what you had to say. He loved my impression of him. He said to me one time: "Rick, you do me better than I do. I was thinking when I pass away, they should bury you."