Rich Little, the First and Best

By Jim Meskimen
It’s true that the first person to excel at anything has a distinct advantage over those that follow. But in the case of impressionist Rich Little, he didn’t have to depend on that to achieve a mythic reputation as a remarkable entertainer.

He had a superb craft, a flawless ear, and the good luck to enter the game at an auspicious time in the history of entertainment.

Like many of my contemporaries in the voice and impression business, I was transfixed and forever beguiled by Rich Little’s appearances on The Tonight Show, The Kopy Kats and the “Celebrity Roasts”, and other programs of the 1960’s and 70’s, where he would do mesmerizing imitations of the stars of the day, many of whom were right there sharing the stage or dais with him.

Rich had an uncanny ear, and was able to “crack” celebrities that no one had ever thought to imitate. Johnny Carson was one who, although an extremely famous and ubiquitous presence on TV, was never imitated effectively before Rich Little’s remarkable homage.

In a sense, he created the whole category of impressionist on television, bringing it out of its smoky nightclub birthplace and into the main stream.

He still performs today, and now his work has an even deeper and ever-deepening resonance, as he embodies the personas of stars long gone, with whom he shares a unique kinship; he is one of the few still around who knew them personally and heard their voices in the flesh. Stars like Jimmy Stewart, Orson Welles, Dean Martin and Jack Benny, men who were part of the pantheon of celebrities, back when a celebrity was someone who could really pull off something remarkable.

I just discovered that Rich Little is a visual artist as well. He shows off his charcoal drawings in a recent YouTube video, and it was a surprise to me that yet another talented voice actor also had a facility in drawing. I know many of my impressionist fellow-travelers who also can draw and paint, as do I.

It’s not a big surprise, and although the brain experts would probably say it has it’s root in areas of our grey matter, or some kind of arcane chemical reaction, the simpler reality is that Impressionists “become” their subjects. In the same way, visual artists “become” their models as well, permeating them, adopting their point of view or their emotion. Watch a little child draw some character sometime, they will commonly change their facial expression to match that of their subject. They are inhabiting that character’s point of view, in order to better understand.

Over the years, Rich Little’s name has continued to represent the very top of the field of celebrity impressions, and I don’t think that will ever change, especially as long as his craft is on display in his many astonishing performances on YouTube.

We contemporary impressionists, and future generations of mimics will always be compared to the master, and it’s inevitable that we’ll be found lacking. For his was a special time, and quite apart from his being the first and best, and his uncanny ear, he also knew his subjects personally, and they delighted in revealing their personas to him, knowing that then, as today, they were entrusting them into good hands.