Rich Little: ‘Man of a Thousand Voices’

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Rich Little during his appearance on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast of Johnny Carson in 1973

If you were watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson or The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast during the 1970s, there was a strong possibility that you’d be treated to an appearance by Rich Little. The master impersonator was nicknamed “The Man of a Thousand Voices,” not just for the sheer volume of his craft but also for his skill at delivering the tonal quality and mannerisms of his subjects.

Little, who turned 80 on November 26, 2018, was well known for his spot-on impressions of celebrities.

He was born in Ottawa, Canada and is said to have practiced his _ while wiling away the hours as an usher at a local movie theater. According to his official bio, Little started his “career” at the age of 12 when he answered back to his teachers in their own voices.

After an early career as a radio DJ, he successfully auditioned for a guest spot on CBS’ The Judy Garland Show in 1964. A series of small roles on several popular sitcoms followed including That GirlPetticoat Junction and The Flying Nun.

The decades of practice paid off and Little became a familiar presence on the tube.

No celebrity was beyond Little’s reach. On one of The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, it was actor-comedian Don Rickles’ turn to be skewered.

Watch Little’s routine crack up fellow roast-ers Jack Klugman, Joey Bishop, Telly Savalas and others

Related: Rickles and Sinatra on The Tonight Show

He would soon appear dozens of times on “the Carson show” doing impressions of Hollywood legends and political figures. Little was the program’s guest host a dozen times during Johnny’s frequent days off. One regular subject was President Richard Nixon, particularly during the Watergate era.

Watch Little impersonate Johnny during the 1973 Martin roast of Carson

By the early ’80s, his long relationship with The Tonight Show had come to an end. In 1985, syndicated columnist Marilyn Beck contacted the show’s longtime producer, Freddie de Cordova, to ask why.

”Rich is the best in his field–but we`ve eliminated the impressionist area from the show,” was the reply. “I think the problem is that the people the imitators imitate are essentially the same they have been, people like Jimmy Stewart and Ronald Reagan–and Johnny’s doing Ronald Reagan himself.”

Apparently there was more to it than that. Little’s dead-on impersonation of Carson is said to have struck a nerve with the popular late night host. In 1996, Little portrayed Carson in the HBO film, The Late Shift.

Little became a U.S. citizen in 2010. He continues to perform regularly at the Tropicana in Las Vegas, where he now lives. Tickets are available here.

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