Rich Little brings “Jimmy Stewart” to ToledoWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Rich Little, the Man of a Thousand Voices, may use them in his one man show — playing October 29 at the Toledo Museum of Art — but the centerpiece is his title character, the legendary Jimmy Stewart. In this interview, the world’s most famous impressionist talks about the show, how he develops the voices he performs, and why it’s hard to impersonate modern actors.
Toledo Free Press: You’re looking back at a near 50-year career in show business. What do you think is the secret to your longevity?
Rich Little: “Keep working! (laughing) As George Burns said at 95, ‘Gotta have a reason to get out of bed,’ you know? Other than go to the bathroom.”
“It’s getting an incredible reaction — better than I ever anticipated — so it looks like I’m gonna be doing it for a long time. If everything goes well, I wanna take it to Broadway, but that’s down the line. At the moment, I just want to do the show as much as possible. It’s Jimmy Stewart’s life, but it involves a lot of other impressions in the show. And it’s a comedy, first of all. It’s not a drama. And it has 24 different characters in the show, and they intertwine in Jimmy’s life…
“It is a one-man show, but it ends up being a tour-de-force for me, because I end up getting to do so many other people. It’s kind of ‘The Best of Rich Little.’ You’ll get to see Richard Nixon and Johnny Carson and all these other people, hopefully making sense in Jimmy’s story without taking too many liberties.”
TFP: What do you think has made Stewart such a legend?
RL: “Well, he was voted by the American Film Institute the third greatest movie star of all time. He had such an incredible career and such a wide range of movies that were very popular with the public — mind you, this was a few years ago — but a lot of these movies, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ and ‘Harvey’ and ‘Winchester 73’ and that, certain films have lived down through the ages. But he was active until the 70s. I guess if you’re under 30, you might not really know him. Perhaps for ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ But it doesn’t seem to make much difference to the audience if you know his whole career or not. They enjoy all the other impressions.
“[Stewart] was the first impression I ever did, and I became very good friends with him, personally. So, I spent a lot of time with him, and I asked him so many questions about so many stories about his career. So I really almost had a jump on doing this show, because I had taken notes along the way over the years, so I had a lot of material on Jimmy. I told him, not too long before he died, that I was thinking of doing a one man show on his life. And he said,(Stewart impression) ‘Rich, I don’t-I don’t think that would work.’ And I said, why? (Stewart again) ‘Well, uh, g-uh-gee, uh, wi-uh-with the way I talk, your-your show will be f-four hours long!’ (laughs) He always had that great sense of humor, Jimmy did.”
TFP: Can you describe the work that goes into creating an impression, in terms of the research you have to do, and how long you have to work on it and polish it?
RL: “The thing with doing impressions is to study the person, and listen to them over and over again, so that when it comes time to do them, you can visualize them in your head. Some voices come very quickly, like Truman Capote took me about two hours, Dr. Ruth — there were some people that were just naturals. But you really have to watch quite a lot. My Barack Obama isn’t too bad, because I hear him so much on TV, speaking, so it finally dawns on me how to do him.”
TFP: Do you feel pressure nowadays to add new characters, to constantly stay current?
RL: “I’m always anxious to add new people. It takes time to do it, you have to really go after a voice. I’ve added Dr. Phil and Barack Obama. But I don’t like to add too many new voices, because a lot of the current film stars are pretty impossible to imitate. You run into a brick wall when you run into some of the current people making movies, you know?”
TFP: If there’s one thing to be said about the Golden Age of Hollywood, everyone had a very specific personality, a very specific character that they projected. And that kind of gave everyone an individuality. Nowadays, everyone kind of sounds the same.
RL: “Yeah. The old stars were much easier to do, because they were larger than life and identifiable — like Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable and John Wayne. They just were natural. But you get people like Brad Pitt or DiCaprio or some of the stars of today, it’s pretty tough.”
TFP: What do you hope audiences get out of “Jimmy Stewart?”
RL: “I hope they walk away feeling that they got to know the man better, personally, and how much they really did admire him.”
Email Jeff at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com