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Playing A Game Of Celebrity Doubles

June 06, 1986|CHALON SMITH

Joe Dimmick assumes his Clint Eastwood squint, slides a hand through his perfectly sparse Eastwood hair and in Eastwood's flinty voice tells about the world of the celebrity look-alike.

Dimmick, via his Palm Springs agency dubbed Dimmick's Doubles, is employer to more than 25 look-alikes in Southern California, with nearly a dozen coming from Orange County.

The 49-year-old Eastwood double envisions more than anonymous appearances for his clients at low-rent conventions or private parties. With the right handling, Dimmick says, they can go beyond their image as novelties and become stars themselves, commanding fat salaries for appearances in television sitcoms and even feature films.

"Right now I'm developing projects and concepts that can tap the resources of doubles. I see almost limitless possibilities," Dimmick said.

Top Hollywood studios may be the dream for Dimmick, but for now, greeting tourists at Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park is the reality. When not honing his own projects (such as a script called "The Bad, the Ridiculous and the Absurd," a lampoon of Eastwood's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"), Dimmick joins a handful of his clients in daily performances at the museum.

Dimmick and performers with striking resemblances to Burt Reynolds, Liza Minnelli, Kenny Rogers, Alan Alda, Linda Evans and Dolly Parton spend hours shaking hands, grinning for Polaroids, getting hugged and making small talk with fans who treat them with the same raw fascination usually reserved for the real thing.

"What can I say? People are just plain crazy about celebrities, and I guess we're the next best thing," Dimmick said.

Not everyone in Hollywood agrees with Dimmick's assessment. Leonard Chassman, executive secretary of the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood, believes that receiving money for looking like a star borders on exploitation, especially when the look-alike ventures into films, television and commercials.

"When they start passing themselves off (as celebrities), they may confuse the audience, especially when they are seen on TV or in commercials," Chassman said. "That (television, films) is a domain reserved for our stars, and the audience expects to see the real thing there. I can even see how a star might lose money because a look-alike might be placed in a commercial or other production instead (of the star)."

Although look-alikes rarely command near the salaries of the stars they impersonate, the work has its financial benefits. Dimmick said personal appearances and client commissions net him about $200,000 a year.

Fred Leaf, a 39-year-old La Palma native and the mirror image of Burt Reynolds, said he makes $100,000 annually from bit parts in films (he had a few lines in the recently released "Echo Park") and television, as well as strolling through conventions and private parties.

"I may not make what Burt does, but I'm doing OK," he said. "God, and all those women pawing at you, it's terrible."

The look-alike business is not quite as lucrative--or provocative--for Bonnie Mirliss, a 35-year-old Cypress resident who doubles as Liza Minnelli, or Craig Hall, a 41-year-old Anaheim Hills resident who has Kenny Rogers' open features and silvery beard and does a commendable job crooning the country singer's songs. Both see it as part-time work, at least for now, and have other occupations.

Hall is a real estate agent, and Mirliss owns a small automobile shipping business. Still, Mirliss earns more than $20,000 a year by affixing spidery eyelashes and affecting showy Minnelli poses, and Hall makes $3,000 in a good month.

Most look-alikes say they enter the field pretty much the same way: A suspicion at a young age that they resemble someone famous is confirmed as more and more friends and strangers say something like, "My, but did you know you look just like. . . ."

The burgeoning career of Burt Reynolds during the early 1970s set Leaf on a less lucrative but no less busy path. "When he began to take off, so did I," Leaf recalled.

His success underlines an axiom in the look-alike trade: If you have to be born with the genetic code of a star, it's best to be mistaken for a sex symbol. Marilyn Monroe, Linda Evans and Burt Reynolds are always in demand, and Leaf enjoys rewards beyond steady work.

"Women give me their room keys or notes saying to meet them somewhere. Sometimes they just come up and ask you," Leaf said, raising a macho eyebrow a la Reynolds. "It's really something, I guess they think I'd be as fun as the real article. But I don't really do anything. I'm happily married."

Despite the temptations, Leaf claims to have never used his looks or borrowed on Reynolds' status to get ahead. He might let a confused maitre d' provide the best table, but he's never identified himself as Reynolds or signed his name for autograph collectors, he said. It's an ethos that Dimmick, Mirliss and Hall also follow.

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