When veteran comedian and impressionist Rich Little appeared in a Las Vegas courtroom during the swearing in ceremony for his U.S. citizenship in 2010, the Canadian native granted the presiding judge an unusual request.“He wanted me to say the Pledge of Allegiance as John Wayne, so I did!” recalled Little from his home in Las Vegas.
It’s one of many stories Little recounts in his 2016 autobiography, “Little by Little: Celebrities I've Known and Been” (see www.richlittle.com).
“It’s really a collection of funny stories that have happened to me with the celebrities I’ve worked with over the years,” he said. “I talk a bit about my childhood, but it’s not a tell-all book at all.”Impressions have been Little’s stock and trade since his school days in Ottawa.
"I would answer teachers' questions in their own voices. Pretty soon, they stopped asking me questions!" said Little, who turned 78 in November.
That was over 60 years ago. Today, crowds still flock to see the man who claims a repertoire of over 200 voices.
“I’ve been performing at the Tropicana in Las Vegas, five nights a week, for over a year,” said Little. “It’s going very well. I do a show that’s based on my career and I show video clips of the people I imitate.”
In addition to his vocal talents, Little is also an artist who draws sketches of celebrities.
"I've dabbled in art all my life, charcoal portraits mostly," he said. "I've done hundreds of sketches over the years.”
Little includes several of his life-like sketches in the Las Vegas show.
If you can’t make it to a live performance, Little’s talents are evident on the Emmy Award-winning "Rich Little's Christmas Carol," originally released on video in the late '70s and re-released on DVD in 2007.
"I played all the characters in the Dickens classic," Little said. “For instance, I play Scrooge as W. C. Fields, Bob Cratchit as Paul Lynde, and Jacob Marley as Richard Nixon!”
Unlike ordinary comedians, Little says impressionists have double-duty.
"You've got to do a convincing impression and also tell jokes in that character," he explained. "It's really all about concentration when you do impressions and becoming the person. Sometimes, when I really get into Johnny Carson, I'll come off stage and find myself writing out an alimony check!"
While Little fans can expect his book to contain stories about all the big stars like Carson, Wayne, and others, there are some surprises.
“There are stories about a number of people I’ve never talked about before like Stewart Granger,” he said.
Little says he knew the British actor quite well.
“I was a huge fan because of his (1952) movie, ‘Scaramouche.’ He lived in Palos Verde, and I’d see him once a week towards the end of his life. We spent a lot of time together and he was quite a colorful, larger-than-life character. He was full of outrageous stories and very opinionated so not everyone could take to him, but I liked him a lot.”
Fans with a passion for classic Hollywood still like Little a lot, too, not only because of his talent, but because of his approach to comedy.
“I may make fun of people, but don’t get too mean spirited or use profanity,” he said. “Many years ago when I guest-hosted ‘The Tonight Show,’ you couldn’t even say damn or hell. Today, you can say a lot worse, even on network television.”
Little says he hasn’t appeared on a late-night talk show for years.
“I think the last one was with David Letterman,” he recalled. “Those talk shows are aimed at a younger audience today and they do a lot of really silly stuff. Dave could be silly, but he could also be clever and witty. That’s my kind of humor.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 500 magazines and newspapers.