Rich Little Interview
He took his natural born talent from his birthplace of Ottawa Ontario Canada to the most prestigious stages in the world.
He was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson, the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, the Julia Andrews Hour and The Kopycats.
He also appeared on Love On A Rooftop, That Girl, The Flying Nun, and Petticoat Junction.
He’s released nine, count them nine albums and appeared in movies as well.
In 1998, he was inducted into Canada’s Walk Of Fame.
We’re talking about Mr. Rich Little.
Q - I remember you from your appearances on the Ed Sullivan show.
A - Yeah. I did a number of those.
Q – The difference between your comedy and the comedians of today is you didn’t work “blue”. I’m just wondering if a guy came along like you today and did imitations of famous people, could they be successful?
A - Oh, sure. It’s a difficult type of comedy. Comics today can say anything they want even on network TV. Back when I was in my heyday in the 70s you couldn’t even say damn. I don’t think it makes them better comics if there “blue” but anyway people seem to accept it so that’s the style today.
Q - What I’m saying is when you were starting out, you had to be funny. Anybody can walk out on stage and spout off a stream of four letter words.
A - Oh, yeah. A lot of comics do because it’s the shock value. They think that’s acceptable because a lot of young people talk that way.
Q - I don’t understand what’s funny about that do you?
A - (Laughs). Different time. Different kind of comedy today.
Q - I guess so. That Ed Sullivan gig was a good gig wasn't it?
A - Oh, yeah. Everybody watch the Ed Sullivan show. There was nothing else to watch on Sunday night.
Q - I’m not going to ask you what Mr. Sullivan paid you, but I remember reading that Alan King was paid $12,500 for a five-minute monologue on Ed Sullivan back in 1967. My father didn’t believe it.
A - Did your father think it was too little or too much?
Q - Too much! He didn’t think there was that kind of money out there.
A - Well, they usually just paid scale I don’t know what that was in those days. I didn’t think it was very much money. $12,500 was pretty good. He was a pretty big star at the time. I think they paid about the average, $6000 maybe, maybe less.
Q - For a five-minute routine.
A – Yeah.
Q - Which is still not bad money.
A - Well, at that time it was pretty good money. By today’s standards it’s pretty bad. At the time it was pretty good. Most people did the Sullivan show and the Tonight Show for the exposure. Most people would’ve done it for nothing really. But, you had to be paid at least scale so I don’t know what scale was in those days. You didn’t really do it for the money because the exposure you God from doing Sullivan made your club appearances better because they paid you more money because people would see you on the Sullivan show. You’d be more recognized. If you did well on the Sullivan show you’d get better bookings.
Q - You were a guest on all these talk shows. I’m just curious were you ever approached about having your own talk show?
A - Well, there is talk about me taking over the Tonight Show that I’ve read about a month ago. An in-depth background on what happened after Carson left. Apparently I was considered to take over the Tonight Show but I never knew about that. When I read this article I was shocked. No one ever approached me about it. They said it was down to me and Bob Newhart and Jay Leno who finally got it, David Letterman and a couple other people but I didn’t know I was a contender for that at all. The article said they’re still trying to decide who they want to pick but Rich Little seems to be the front runner at the moment, (laughs), but you would think I would know about that. I don’t think I would’ve done it actually to tell you the truth.
Q - Why not?
A - Well, the thing about hosting the Tonight Show or any talk show is you’ve got to be pretty knowledgeable about a lot of subjects. I’d be fine with the entertainment but I don’t know if I could talk about baseball or science. Carson was pretty well read. He could talk about anybody because he was very bright. I’m not saying I wasn’t bright. There would be certain areas that I’d have a tough time with. If they write the questions out for me I’d be okay I don’t know whether I would’ve taken the chance or not. It’s hard to tell. But, I hosted a number of times anyway. Then when I did host the Tonight Show I asked for people that I could impersonate and admire to come on the show like Jimmy Stewart, George Burns, Jack Benny and people like that. That helped a lot. But, I don’t know how good I would’ve been with some scientist. (Laughs).
Q - If the researchers provided you with some good questions, you probably could’ve done a great job!
A - Oh, yeah. What made Carson so great is he never really looked at the questions. He just bounced off what the person was talking about. And that’s what made him great.
Q - Of all the talk show hosts he probably was number one.
A - Oh yeah I think so too. I can remember people actually are rushing through dinner because they had to get home and see the Tonight Show. It was like a must. Today nobody even thinks about it. If you happen to turn on the TV fine. If you don’t, who cares? But, back then everybody watched the Tonight Show. Some people had to get up early so they only watch the monologue. I’d say half the population watched the Tonight Show.
Q - I see today’s talk show hosts trying to imitate Johnny Carson with the way they dress in the way they talk.
A - Yeah. That’s very true.
Q - You have Rich Little productions.
A - Yeah. That’s my company.
Q - Only for you? You don’t handle other comics do you?
A - No. I don’t handle anybody else. I’ve discovered few people in show business but, I don’t handle anybody, no. I’m not an agent.
Q - Who have you discovered?
A - Fred Travalena who’s a pretty good impersonator, though he’s not with us anymore. I gave him a couple shots on TV and Gordy Brown who was in impersonator from my hometown of Ottawa. He works the Golden Nugget here in Vegas. I put him on a show early in my career. Down through the years you use people in television if you have your own show. Maybe their shot on your show help their career. You wouldn’t know. I always try to help people that I thought were talented if I had the opportunity to do so.
Q - Your father was a professional man.
A - Yeah. He was a doctor.
Q - When your father saw you heading for a career as a stand-up comic...
A - Well, he didn’t really. He passed away before I really got into show business.
Q - That’s too bad.
A - Yeah. He never saw any of my success. My mother did. She lived until 95. My father only lived to 60. He didn’t see me do any television really.
Q - Did he ever tell you to follow in his footsteps?
A - No because he knew I couldn’t stand the sight of blood. (Laughs).
Q - That wouldn’t work in your favor.
A - A couple of times I went into the operating room with him as a kid. He said, if you’re going to faint, faint back. Don’t faint on the patient. (Laughs).
Q - Good advice.
A - That wasn’t for me at all.
Q - Mel Blanc called you “the man of 1000 voices”. You actually do what a couple of hundred voices? Is that accurate?
A - If I was put to the test Icould probably do close to maybe 100 impersonations. Not 1000s. That came from Lou Chaney “man of 1000 faces”. They like to put that slogan onto impersonators. Nobody does a 1000 voices. Good God that would be impossible!
Q - There is not 1000 people worth imitating.
A - No. There’s hardly 100 really. And today it’s getting worse. There’s not many film stars you can imitate today.
Q - When you perform today, do you imitate any of the current politicians out there?
A - Well, I might do a little Donald Trump. It depends. I do a Barack Obama but it’s not one of my best. Things change so you have to adjust to the change. I’m certainly not going to be doing Hillary Clinton I know that. My show is mainly a lot of my sketches. I’m an artist. I do portraits. Everybody I impersonate you will see a sketch of them. Then also I show a lot of film clips from shows I’ve done. If I do George Burns, I show me with George Burns. If I do John Wayne, I show me with John Wayne. Dean Martin, Sinatra. All those people. I’ve got clips from a lot of shows in my show. So, it’s kind of a trip down memory lane. It’s a miniature show on my career with a lot of pictures and a lot of film clips. I do a few singers too. I do Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Louis Armstrong, and Willie Nelson.
Q - Did anyone ever object to any of the impersonations you did? Did anyone ever say, “Rich, that’s not funny”?
A - Paul Lynde did, of “Hollywood squares”. He didn’t like my impression at all. Every time I did Paul Lynde on TV, on Hollywood Squares or on Dean Martin roast, Paul would always say “who’s he doing”? What’s that? That’s disgusting! (Laughs). He just didn’t like it. I don’t think he liked it because I exaggerated him and made him a little more feminine than he liked. I don’t know. He used to say to the audience his sister does me better than he does. I said, Paul, I don’t have a sister. (Laughs).
Q - He wanted to be the funny guy not you.
A - He drank a lot. Drunk or sober he was funny. You wouldn’t know. After the dinner break he was pretty well gone but he still was funny though. They used to strap him into the chair. (Laughs).
Q - That’s probably one of the secrets in your new book “Little by Little”: People I’ve Known And Been.
A - Yeah. Well, I’ve got a lot of stuff in my book. It’s really a book about the funny things that happened with celebrities. It’s not really a bio. I touch on my early career, my early life, growing up in Canada, but, it’s mainly what happened with Reagan, with Jack Benny, with George Burns, with Ed Sullivan. And, all the funny things that happened. Reagan doing impressions for me. Things like that, that people will find interesting.
Q - Did you meet many if not all of the people whose voices you imitated?
A - Oh, no. I didn’t meet Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable or some of the early ones. A lot of them I have though. I’d say the majority of people I impersonate I know and worked with. That’s what makes the show interesting, the connection I had with the real person. So, you’ll see that in my show. You’ll see me with a lot of people I’m impersonating.
Q - Before you got into comedy, you were a successful disc jockey.
A - I don’t know about successful. I was a disc jockey.
Q - Were you playing rock ‘n roll records?
A - Yeah. I would do a morning show or an afternoon show where I would have to play records. I did a lot of impressions too. I started out in radio doing the all-night show on a radio station in Ottawa, Canada I would do all my impressions on there. Then one day a bunch of people were at the door of the radio station wanting to meet Elvis, and John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. It was just me. (Laughs). They thought the real people were there.
Q - That shows how good you were!
A - They were disappointed. Some had driven a long way, but, they were hearing me doing these people on the radio and they thought they were really there.” It’s kind of a war of the worlds “isn’t it? They thought it was real. The manager came out and said, I’m sorry. Elvis and John Wayne are not here. It’s Rich Little. I came out and they all booed. (Laughs).
Q - You weren’t doing that every night were you?
A - No. I started out as a teenager doing the all night show on a Friday night. I even had to read the news which was tough. Then I went to a small station outside of Ottawa and there I was a disc jockey and did an afternoon show for about a year. So, I was in radio for a couple years.
Q - It was tough to read the news because it was serious?
A - It was tough to read the news because you just rip it off the teletype and you had to read it cold and I wasn’t very good at that. If I used to see a bunch of names, coming up, Russian names and new I couldn’t pronounce them I’d practice when we went off the air. (Laughs).
Q - That’s one way to get by it.
A - I’d say “the Russian leaders today he went up and then they like that”. Then I’d come back on and read something I could read. The technicians came in the next day and ripped the whole console apart. He thought it had a malfunction. (Laughs). It was just me because I couldn’t read the news. I can remember doing that.
Q - When you were a Disc Jockey did any of the rock ‘n roll stars of the day come into the station and speak with you?
A - No. Not that I can remember. Back in those days you could interview a celebrity if they had a movie or record coming out. They would send you a record of answers and you would put your voice into it. Asking the question. That same interview was heard on every radio station with a different answer. I can remember that. I did a little of that, but then I impersonated the person so I didn’t have to do that.
Q - Did you meet Elvis?
A - I met Elvis when he performed at the Hilton in Vegas. I went backstage and spent some time with him. He was very polite and very nice.
Q - How about the Beatles?
A - I never met the Beatles.
Q - When you play a Turning Stone Casino for example, will you also be bringing along “Little by little: people I’ve known and been?
A - Yeah. I’m going to be bringing merchandise with me. I’ll bring a lot of shows that I’ve done, the NBC series I did. I’ll bring “Christmas Carol “with me which I did for HBO in the 70s, a lot of my sketches and I’ll bring a lot of my books and personally sign them for people if they want to give them as gifts. All the money we raise goes to the Gary Sinise The Foundation for the Wounded Warriors, for the troops. That’s very gratifying to do that because the troops have been ignored and they need all the help they can get. So, I’m happy to do that really. It’s the least I can do.
Q - You have one of the greatest job in the world don’t you? You make people laugh!
A - Yeah. That’s what Cary Grant said to me years ago. He said you have the ability to make people laugh and forget their problems that’s very rare. I said, you make movies and give enjoyment to people. He said, I’m just playing part. I said, but, you do it very well. He was very complimentary about what I did and he has a point. If you can make someone laugh or feel better, because there’s a lot of things today that aren’t very pleasant; if an audience goes out of a show and says God, that was great. I really enjoyed that. I was laughing my head off. That’s great. That’s all I really need.
Official website: richlittle.com
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