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CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD

A Little history

Rich Little, for nearly 50 years 'The Man of a Thousand Voices,' still aims to make a good impression.

September 12, 2011|Susan King

Veteran impressionist Rich Little admits it's tough getting a handle on contemporary stars.

"How are you going to imitate Ashton Kutcher or Brad Pitt or Matt Damon?" asked Little over a cup of coffee at the Beverly Hilton. "Jack Nicholson is larger than life, so is Clint Eastwood. But there are not many people like Nicholson who are around today -- larger than life, with very distinctive voices. How do you do George Clooney? I have worked at it. If you do Tom Hanks, you have got to do 'box of chocolates,' and even that is kind of old now. Good actors, but not voices."

The 72-year-old Little has been described as "The Man of a Thousand Voices" because of his uncanny characterizations of notables including Jimmy Stewart, Richard Nixon, George Burns and John Wayne. And yes, he's freshened up his act -- now he's added Dr. Phil and even President Obama to his repertoire.

"There's a very good impersonator in Vegas called Gordie Brown," said Little. "He does a lot of rappers and singers I don't know. But he does Christopher Walken, and he does it well. But I am thinking to myself, how many people out there are getting this? Walken's done a lot of acting, but will Middle America know who the heck he is? It gets tougher as time goes on."

Little got his first big break on the 1963-64 "The Judy Garland Show" on CBS because she was impressed with his dead-on impression of James Mason, who was her costar in 1954's "A Star Is Born." The 1960s and '70s were the golden age of impressionists such as Little, Frank Gorshin, Marilyn Michaels, George Kirby, Fred Travalena, David Frye and Guy Marks. They headlined nightclubs and were in demand on such variety series as "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."

Several of the celebrated impressionists from the era have died, but the Las Vegas-based Little is still performing. He recently did a three-week stint at the Riviera, and he's making a rare appearance in Southern California on Sunday afternoon at the Cerritos Center in his one-man show "Jimmy Stewart: A Humorous Look at His Life."

"I spent two years writing it," Little said. "Even though it's called 'Jimmy Stewart,' I use Jimmy Stewart as a vehicle to do other impressions of all the people involved in his life -- the obvious ones are Henry Fonda, John Wayne, [Ronald] Reagan and Nixon. Jack Nicholson has no connection to Jimmy, so I kind of a made up a story that Jack Nicholson went over to Jimmy's house to bring him a script. I don't want it to be all stars from the '30s and '40s. I actually end up doing 25 impressions."

Little got to know Stewart, who died in 1997, doing the popular "Dean Martin Celebrity Roast" specials on NBC in the 1970s and appearing together at benefits. "The thing about those roasts, it was always such a thrill to be on with so many giant comedians. I would sit on the dais and see Lucille Ball, Jack Benny and Don Rickles and all the giants like Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne."

And it could be intimidating. "You had to settle yourself," said Little. "Not only are you performing for America, but all of these fabulously talented people are watching you. Sometimes people got up [to perform] and they panicked. They were cut out of the show. I think they put me on because I could get up and intimidate the people sitting on the dais. I wasn't just standing up and telling jokes. I was doing the impressions of those involved in the roastee's life."

Little breaks into Stewart when he recalled telling the Oscar-winning legend, who spoke in a slow, halting pace, that one day he would love to do a one-man show on him. "He said, 'Rich, it would be boring. You know there is no controversy. I've lived a simple life. Why would you do a show on me?' I said, 'Because people are fascinated with you, and your career is incredible.' He said, 'First of all, if you did a show on me, oh, my God, it would be seven hours long and that would just be the opening statement!' "

For more information on the show go to cerritoscenter.com.

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susan.king@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

He gives 'em a listen

Rich Little favors these impressionists, who were popular during the art form's golden age in the 1960s and '70s.

George Kirby

Kirby excelled as Nat King Cole, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and even Ella Fitzgerald.

Marilyn Michaels

Impressions of singers Connie Francis, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and Ethel Merman are her forte.

Frank Gorshin

Gorshin was the first impressionist to become a headliner imitating such stars as Burt Lancaster and George Burns.

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