Today I actually met Rich Little, the greatest of all master impressionists, at a luncheon honoring him in Los Angeles.
It had to happen eventually, and though inevitable, it was still very thrilling. I was invited by my friend Lois Travalena, whose late husband, Fred, was also a world class impressionist and friend of Rich’s.
Like many of my contemporaries, I was forever beguiled by Rich Little’s appearances on The Tonight Show, The Kopy Kats and the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts in the 1970’s where he would perform uncanny imitations of the stars of the day, many of whom shared the dais with him.
Rich, who was born in Ottawa, Canada and took America by storm in 1959 on the Judy Garland Show, had an uncanny ear and could imitate a variety of celebrities from John Wayne to Jack Benny to Ronald Reagan.
His reputation is such that, even today, if you ask someone to name an impressionist, they will usually say “Rich Little.” In modern parlance, he dominates the brand.
In the height of his career, Little was able to “crack” celebrities that no one else had ever successfully imitated, like Johnny Carson, whom he specialized in and did numerous times on The Tonight Show when Carson was king of late night.
Rich Little actually created the entire category of TV impressionist, bringing it out of its smoky nightclub crucible and into the living rooms of Americans.
I well remember watching an early show called The Kopy Kats, where he starred with an ensemble of brilliant impressionists, and did the kind of sketch comedy that SNL now does as a matter of course.
Not many episodes of The Kopy Kats were produced, and it suffered from being bounced around the television schedule, but for me it was utter bliss whenever I managed to stumble upon it.
Strangely, I do NOT recall thinking, at that tender age, that one day I myself would like to have such a job, or even do impressions professionally, but clearly it had a deep, underlying influence.
When I finally met Rich Little in person, I knew I wouldn’t have very long with him, and he would likely be pretty distracted, but I wanted to thank him for all the inspiration and the entertainment, and to shake his hand, which I did.
I’m very certain he has heard the same words of praise from thousands of other impressionists, amateur and professional alike in his 50 year plus career, but I did feel satisfaction telling him personally.
It’s nice to be able to acknowledge people one admires and who have had a positive influence on one’s life and career. I’m fortunate to have been able to do that today, and to express my deep thanks to a genuine superstar of the craft.
Do yourself a favor some night and check out Rich Little on YouTube… it’s a treasure trove.