Thursday, August 18, 2011

An Interview with Rich Little - Part Two

Kliph Nesteroff: We were talking about your experiences at the famed Manhattan supperclub The Copacabana. What was Copa boss Jules Podell like?

Rich Little: Oh, a very gruff guy. Yeah, he was very set in his ways. Very stern. Not too friendly, but ran the whole show. If he said to take something out or "change that" or "I don't like your act," you would just listen to him because he was the boss. I always got along with him. 

I don't know if he liked that incident [Ed. note - see Rich Little Interview Part One], but I think he liked the notoriety and the fact that it was written up in the papers. They mentioned the Copa and then there were lines around the block - I think he liked that. But I didn't have much to do with him really.

Kliph Nesteroff: Around that time you got cast in the sitcom Love on a Rooftop. I had read that you used Jack Lemmon as your acting template - he was sort of your acting hero.

Rich Little: I was a lot like Jack Lemmon in Love on a Rooftop; a goofy stutterer and full of enthusiasm. I was supposed to be an inventor always coming up with new inventions and wild, wacky [ideas]. It was sort of like a Jack Lemmon part, which is okay by me because he was brilliant. So I was the Jack Lemmon type. That was great doing a weekly series. Fun. The two principles Judy Carne and Peter Duel were a little bit of a handful, a little bit goofy, but we had a good director and it was great fun. I enjoyed it.

Kliph Nesteroff: In what sense were your co-stars difficult or goofy?

Rich Little: Well, Peter Duel had a lot of problems. Very emotional... didn't show up... temperamental... I think he ended up killing himself.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, I didn't know that.

Rich Little: Yeah, he shot himself. He ended up doing another series after that - Alias Smith and Jones. Then Judy Carne went on to Laugh-In. But the show was written by a Canadian by the name of Bernie Slade and that helped me get on the show too.

Kliph Nesteroff: That would be your only major, starring sitcom role, but after Love on a Rooftop there was talk of you starring in your own sitcom. I read that Jackie Cooper...

Rich Little: That's right.

Kliph Nesteroff: Over at Screen Gems he wanted to make a pilot with you. Did that ever happen?

Rich Little: Never happened, no. Talked about it a lot, but it never happened.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was talk at the same time of a sitcom that was to star you and Rip Taylor.

Rich Little: Really? I didn't know that.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you became big in Hollywood you retained the same manager you had as a kid in Ottawa. Gib Kerr. How did you hook up with him in the first place?

Rich Little: He was a local booker and he booked me into dates in Ottawa for ten or twenty dollars a shot. When I went to Hollywood, he came along. He never had any money and just couldn't take the big time. So we finally separated. I don't know what happened to him. I'm sure he's gone as he was twenty years older than me.

Kliph Nesteroff: At the same time you were renting an apartment from Don Rickles?

Rich Little: Yeah! Yes, in Hollywood right next to Don Rickles' mother. She used to bring me chicken soup all the time. Don used to come by, "Are you shtupping my mother!?"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Rich Little: "You're having an affair with my mother!" I said, "Don, get out of here." Don used to always come by. "I'll keep my mother's chicken soup at your place for Godsake." 

Kliph Nesteroff: You were renting this place from him because you two had met doing shows?

Rich Little: No, I didn't know him at all! I didn't even know that she lived next door to me. It was just a coincidence. So I'd see him in the elevator a lot and he'd say, "Are you and my mother shacking up?" He still kids me about it. "That's Rich Little. My mother's old boyfriend."

Kliph Nesteroff: In 1972 Orson Welles cast you in a debacle of a production called The Other Side of the Wind.

Rich Little: Yeah, it never was released. I got to know him through a show called Kopykats, which I did in England. All impersonators. I don't know how many shows we did - about twelve anyway. We had guest stars every week and Orson was on. I imitated Orson and we became very friendly. He said he was doing this movie - The Other Side of the Wind in Phoenix. He had started it three years earlier in Spain and would I take a part? I said, "Of course!" 

So we went to Phoenix and started shooting and got behind schedule. I had club dates to do and it was terrible. I had to leave the set - and I was replaced! They started all over again! They redid it with Peter Bogdanovich in my part. It was never released. I don't know what happened to it. Except for having a great time with Orson and John Huston and some of the cast, and a lot of laughs, it was a terrific experience, but the picture was never released. But maybe if it had been - I wouldn't even be in it.

Kliph Nesteroff: John Huston and Orson Welles; two enormous, bigger than life personalities.

Rich Little: Oh, yes. John Huston and Orson Welles, my God, I tell ya. They were fabulous. I used to just listen. They were full of stories, my God. Funny, funny characters and they just adored each other. Anyway, never saw that movie. I don't know if it's half-made or if I am even in it. I don't know.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you remain in contact with Orson Welles after that?

Rich Little: Yes. Yeah, because I did a number of the Dean Martin roasts with him and we were always friendly. Terrific guy with a great sense of humor. When he laughed the whole ground shook and I thought we were going to start a rock slide (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: Another enormous personality was a man you were a huge fan of - Frank Sinatra.

Rich Little: Oh, yes. Bing Crosby and Frank were both very close to me. I liked Bing a lot. Bing was the sweetheart - just very, very nice to me. And so was Frank, but Frank was of many moods. Bing was pretty relaxed most of the time. Bing did my TV show and I did a lot of things with him; benefits and The Merv Griffin Show

I did a lot of benefits with Frank too. He ended up doing that show in Ottawa where we raised money for the civic hospital and the Rich Little Neonatal Center and raised a million dollars. That was because of Frank coming to Ottawa. So they were both very helpful to me.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did a comedy LP that was a sequel to Vaughn Meader's First Family.

Rich Little: Yes. There's a guy named Earle Doud who put out The First Family and made a fortune on it with Vaughn Meader. Then he did a whole bunch of them after that - on LBJ and all kinds of people. I did some voices on some of them and then he featured me on the sequel - the Reagan one. It was a big seller.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of the people on that album, long before he was famous, is Michael Richards.

Rich Little: Right, that's right. That's exactly right. He played Reagan's son. He was totally unknown. I did a movie early in my career with Laurel and Hardy as Richard Nixon and Sprio Agnew. I looked like Richard Nixon with a guy named Herb Voland, who was in Love on a Rooftop. We did all Laurel and Hardy bits looking like Nixon and Agnew. There was a brick fight in it and one of the guys throwing the bricks was Steve Martin.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, wow.

Rich Little: He had a tiny, tiny part in it throwing bricks. It must have been one of the first things he ever did in his life. People ask me, "You ever meet Steve Martin?" I say, "No, but he hit me with a brick."

Kliph Nesteroff: A man that helped you in terms of exposure was Johnny Carson. What was your relationship with him like?

Rich Little: Well, I didn't really have a relationship with Johnny. I don't think anybody did. You just did the show and talked to him during the commercials and said goodbye to him. That was about it. Nobody really got to know him. He was a very quiet, very secretive kind of a guy. Very serious. But boy, he could turn it on though. He was charming on the show. He was very pleasant, but he wasn't overly friendly and I don't think anybody got to know him.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of Johnny's talk show competitors for a short while was Joey Bishop.

Rich Little: Yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: Eventually you married Joey Bishop's secretary.

Rich Little: Yes, I did. That's true.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was your relationship like with Joey Bishop? He was also known for being aloof.

Rich Little: Oh, he was... he was difficult. Very pompous. Hard to get to know. Not friendly at all. Never was. You hardly run into anybody today who liked him. I think he was very bitter that he was a member of the Rat Pack, yet nobody seemed to know who he was (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: Someone described him to me as being a politician. He worked his way up in show business by knowing who to gladhand while not bothering with others.

Rich Little: Could be. Well, he made Frank Sinatra laugh. He was very quick with a one-liner. He had a good sense of humor, but he just wasn't very... I don't know how the hell he got in with the Rat Pack because he didn't drink and he didn't carouse and he didn't stay up late. But Frank liked him. 

Fell out with him eventually when he didn't fill in for him in Vegas. Joey refused and that was the end of it, their relationship. But up til then Frank liked him and used him in the Rat Pack a lot. But then he had Peter Lawford too, who had no talent. But he wanted to stay in with the Kennedys so he used Peter Lawford for that reason. But they didn't really belong with the Rat Pack.

Kliph Nesteroff: Let me ask you about some of the other people that were in your genre. Will Jordan.

Rich Little: Yeah, well, he did the great Ed Sullivan. He looked like Ed Sullivan. He would play Ottawa and I used to go see him. I became friendly with him, but he was always a little pompous. He was also hard to get to know. George Kirby, another impersonator, was much friendlier and he was much more helpful. Will Jordan not only sounded like Ed, but he looked like Ed. He could do a lot of other impressions too.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jordan's career petered out in a big way.

Rich Little: Yes, well, he was his own worst enemy. He really was.

Kliph Nesteroff: How so?

Rich Little: He did a lot of great impressions though. A lot of unusual people that had never been imitated before, which always appealed to me. He'd do Sabu and he'd do Fred MacMurray and Henry Fonda and I was always impressed.

Kliph Nesteroff: You said he was his own worst enemy...

Rich Little: Yeah, well, he was just kind of sour all the time that he wasn't a big star. George Kirby was likable and friendly and everything and then they sent him to jail for selling drugs! Surprised the hell out of me.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, very sad. There's a wonderful appearance George Kirby made on the TV show I've Got a Secret. Pearl Bailey sits down and they make the panel put on blindfolds. Of course, the object of the game is that the guest has a secret and the panel has to guess what that secret is. They put on their blindfolds, Pearl Bailey leaves. George Kirby comes in and answers all the questions in a Pearl Bailey voice - and stumps the panel. He was so good, they couldn't tell the difference.

Rich Little: They all thought it was Pearl Bailey? Wow.

Kliph Nesteroff: It's rare that male impressionists can do female voices...

Rich Little: Kirby could do Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald and those voices extremely well. He could do that to perfection. Those that did Ed [Sullivan] were John Byner and Jackie Mason and Will Jordan and myself.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now, how about Frank Gorshin? He was one of the most notable of all the stand-up comic impressionists.

Rich Little: Yeah, well, Frank didn't do any politicians at all - ever. He came along before me and became the first headliner that did impressions. Very talented, but very serious. Not much sense of humor. He ended up doing George Burns on Broadway - which I never ever heard him do [in his act], but he did a pretty good job of it. It wasn't bad at all. I didn't want to do that show because I thought it was boring. 

They asked me if I wanted to do it. I wanted to put Jack Benny in it and Groucho Marx and Jimmy Durante in it to make it more interesting, but they just wanted a monologue of George and I thought that was dull. When I saw the show I still thought it was dull, but it did pretty well. That was his last big claim to fame; he died shortly after that. Frank Gorshin.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you and Gorshin friendly?

Rich Little: No, no one was really too friendly with Frank. He was too to himself. He never laughed. He'd say, "Nyeeeeeaaahhhhhh, that's funny. Hysterical."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Rich Little: (laughs) No, I never really got to know him. Now George [Kirby] was an open book and Fred Travalena was the best of the best. He was just a fabulous guy and great impressions. I was very glad to give him a push at the beginning of his career by getting him on The Mike Douglas Show. And you know, Marilyn Michaels and most of the people that were on Kopykats were great, but I didn't know Frank very well.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about David Frye?

Rich Little: Oh, and David Frye was just about insane! (laughs) He thought he was Nixon. He was going to have me deported back to Canada (laughs). "Don't do my Nixon!"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Rich Little: He was good, though. He did some great stuff, but very strange guy, God! I did a Kopykats with him and we went to England where we did a couple for Kraft Foods. He would have a bucket backstage so that he could throw up just before going onstage. So intense.

Kliph Nesteroff: I had heard a story about him. This was when he was already quite well-known, well-established. He was playing some big club and he went into the restroom or dressing room prior to going on and there was no mirror backstage. He told the people that ran the show he wasn't going to go on. He refused to go on if he didn't have mirror to stare into first so he could transform.

Rich Little: Yes. He always had a mirror backstage. And a bucket. He'd look in the mirror just before going on. He had to see himself. If there was no mirror he'd have a fit. Yes, he was a little strange, but he did some good voices; William F. Buckley and Hubert Humphrey and Nixon, of course. He hated it when I did my Nixon (laughs). I guess he's passed on. I don't know whatever happened to him. I never saw him again.

Kliph Nesteroff: He just died this past December - the same week that Charlie Callas died.

Rich Little: Ah, that's right. Now I recall, but I wonder what he was doing [for the past several years]. Yes, Charlie was funny, but I heard he got kind of... he didn't really have an act. He could play other characters, but Charlie Callas never really had an act. Frank Sinatra would say he was the funniest man who ever lived.

Kliph Nesteroff: A lot of these guys it sounds like - David Frye and Frank Gorshin and Will Jordan... they have a dark side to them...

Rich Little: Yes, they did.

Kliph Nesteroff: Any theory there?

Rich Little: Well, a lot of them weren't happy with themselves - so they had to be somebody else. They only came alive when they were someone else because they didn't like their own personality. David Frye was that. He was to himself, not funny, not friendly. Then he'd go onstage and go into character like you wouldn't believe! There were a number of impersonators like that. They just came to life when they were somebody else. True. Very true.


Tom Misnik said...

Wow, thanks for this one Kliph. Im certainly seeing Rich Little in a different light. Alot of great insights from him. Some surprises, some not.

It was interesting for him to touch a bit on the psychology of impressionists.(Maybe another article??)

Mark Murphy said...

Another great job.

Pete Duel (who earlier in his career was known as Peter Deuel) shot himself to death during the run of a series he co-starred in "Alias Smith and Jones."

An actor named Roger Davis replaced him for the rest of the series' run. Davis was perhaps better known for his voiceover work -- he was a Henry Fonda soundalike in a lot of commercials.

Bernard Slade wrote some of the better early "Bewitched" episodes. He eventually wrote the play "Same Time Next Year."

ajm said...

Slade's other claim to fame was creating The Partridge Family...

Keith Scott said...

Thanks, Kliph, for the Rich Little interview. If you ever speak with him again, it would be great to ask him about when and why his attraction to imitating voices started, and which characters he considered his "originals" (i.e., not done by anyone else).

Speaking of voices and mimicry, when Pete Duel killed himself, some of his dialogue lines for "Alias Smith & Jones" were "looped' by the great Paul Frees, in order to save some episodes that had been shot but hadn't reached post-production yet.

Keith Scott

Bobby Wall said...

Great interview Kliph.

When he said that Will Jordan got in the way of himself, your interview of Will Jordan came right into my mind and I said to myself, "That makes total sense -- he WAS his own worst enemy." And if you the interview you did with Will Jordan, it's so obvious (at least to me) what Rich Little was talking about.

I met Frank Gorshin one night on 58th and Broadway, here in NYC. It was at the end of his run with "Gracie and Me" on Broadway. He was nice to me but I can see now exactly what Rich Little said about him being so serious. I told Gorshin that I used to do some of his voices and routines when I was in high school. He said, "I hope you had better luck with it than I did." He seemed deadly serious, even though it doesn't make sense. He really seemed embittered, for some reason. And this from a guy who was a huge success in night clubs all over this country and in Las Vegas.

I can believe that Joey Bishop wasn't a nice guy. I can also see why Little said that Peter Lawford had no talent. He's lucky he married a Kennedy, that's how I see it too.

I saw David Frye open for Dionne Warwick. He was excellent. His Nixon, of course, was unbeatable, but you had to hear him impersonate Henry Fonda. You would think Henry Fonda was doing the talking. But how interesting that he had to have a bucket to vomit in and a mirror to stare into. Maybe after he stared into the mirror, that's what made him throw up! :-)

Bobby Wall said...

I meant to add that George Kirby was just a terrific impressionist and all-around performer. When he impersonated a trumpet, you'd swear he was playing one. And he could play the piano well enough, too. But, for my money (and Rich Little talks about it, and it's true), George Kirby's impression of Pearl Bailey is a true stunner! I honestly could see how he fooled the blindfolded panel into them thinking that Pearl Bailey was still in the room and doing the talking. And a quick note about Pearl Bailey. She was the nicest, sweetest woman. I met her when I was a teenager after she and her husband, the great drummer, Louis Bellson, did a show together. She couldn't have been nicer or more friendly -- and not just to me but to everyone. I gave her manager my name and address and about 3 weeks later I got a signed 8x10 glossy of Pearl Bailey. Total class. I'll never forget her as long as I live. (And what a performer!) (Sorry, I would have been remiss if I didn't give Pearlie Mae my props.)

Patrick said...


Here's a little tidbit you might enjoy: there's a book called "From the President: Richard Nixon's secret files". It is a collection of declassified memos written by various figures in the Nixon Administration.

In one memo, John Dean wrote a note to Nixon, Haldeman, and Colson about a "derogatory film about the President" entitled Another Nice Mess which was being produced by the Smothers Brothers. Dean indicated that he had already sent people undercover to SmoBro Production's offices to find out what they could. He concluded by saying that he wanted to discuss with Haldeman and Colson how the White House could develop information about the film and its backers, "to assess its potential impact".

I contacted the Smothers Brothers by email about this memo when I read it (and to beg to see the film). Dick Smothers replied. He said that Tommy would love to hear about the Nixon memos, but unfortunately the movie had never been transferred to video.

Anonymous said...

"The Other Side of the Wind" has indeed never been released. It is said to be completed or near-completed, as Welles left behind scripts, notes and a ton of not completely edited footage. Peter Bogdanovich, one of the film's actors and a longtime friend of Welles, recently attempted to get the film launched but even he couldn't accomplish the deed. "The Other Side of the Wind" is plagued by lingering and complex legal ownership entanglements. The world will have to make do with Welles' last completed motion picture, "F for Fake", until "Wind" sees the light of day.

Michael Powers said...

Several years ago they were running all the extant pieces of "The Other Side of the Wind" at around 2pm one Sunday at the Film Forum here in New York. I was hanging out with a friend that day who had no interest in seeing it so I skipped the screening, telling myself I'd have another chance to see it somewhere soon. No dice except some youtube clips.

I think Little was the first one to do Johnny Carson if I'm not mistaken. Prior to that no one could do Carson because he was believed to have no mannerisms to replicate until Little unearthed an array of them and everybody's been doing him ever since. The best today is my pal Kaye Lazar, who does local television in Richmond, Virginia. He can improvise songs on the spot as Carson and it's almost preposterously hilarious. Anyway, apparently Carson held Little's cracking of the Carson impression code against him and eventually barred him from Hitler's Bunker, uh, Carson's Cellar (which is where his sponsor money was toward the end, the cellar, making much less for the network than Letterman's show, which was on an hour later--so they fired him. The National Enquirer published a schedule of when he'd go, Carson and network honchos held a press conference denying it, then it was adhered to precisely).

R.A.M.'67 said...

I hope there's a third part to this Rich Little interview; more interesting stuff here!

Anonymous said...

Very, very intersting interview. I'm going to be in the minority here and say that I never found Mr. Little funny, nor did I think he was a very good impressionist. His correspondant's dinner performance is a legendary bomb, but he was a TV fixture in the 60's and 70's and deserves credit for being quite popular.

Never cared for Travelna either, but Gorshin was incredible. I'm talkin' spooky good.

I must say, no matter who the subject is, these interviews are priceless.

Anonymous said...

I also never cared much for Rich Little. He seemed too safe, too middle of the road. He was "situationally funny" especially when working with other sharp performers or when well-directed, but as a solo act, dull. David Frye, on the other hand, approached genius. Some of his records are incredible classics; it's really unfortunate that Kliph or somebody didn't get to him before he passed on.

Anonymous said...

What a great interview!!

If you ever have a chance to talk with Mr. Little again I would be curious to know what he thinks of fellow Canadian Andre Philippe Gagnon.

kym said...

He didn't give David Frye his due--no one, NO ONE did politicians till David Frye started doing them, and that was his main thing. Then other people started doing them. Rich Little really was doing David Frye's Nixon. David Frye was the funniest, most innovative impressionist I've ever seen. There was some kind of genius at work there. Rich Little was just more mainstream.

I've always wondered what rich little did to anger johnny carson. He says he doesn't know but I really wonder.

Bobby said...

Maybe it was when Rich portrayed Johnny in the Late Shift movie about the Leno/Letterman Tonight Show situation.

Will said...

Another Nice Mess is viewable here;

I think the Carson/Little thing had to do with the attempt at impersonating Johnny that Rich was doing. I do recall a 'chilling' had happened, and always thought that that was the cause.

roy said...

Sorry I'm late to this party.

According to producer Peter La Sally, Johnny Carson stopped having Rich Little on because he kept doing the same thing every time. He did guest host an infamous episode where comic Dick Shawn trashed the set. Shawn was banned for over a decade.

I don't think it's been mentioned, but David Frye had a pretty big drinking problem.

NBC did not fire Johnny Carson, leaving was Johnny's call and it shocked most execs at NBC when he made the surprise announcement in front of them at Carnegie Hall on May 22, 1991.