We caught up with the famous celebrity impersonator to talk writing, Johnny Carson and The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast.

Rich Little knows a thing or two about making people laugh.

The master mimic from Ottawa boasts an impressive career in showbiz that spans 50 years and more than 200 impersonations. He’s even been nicknamed “The Man of a Thousand Voices”, a unique distinction he shares with the late voice actor Mel Blanc. And now, at 79, Little shows no sign of slowing down. After a successful run of one-man shows in Las Vegas last year, he recently inked a deal for more performance dates at the Tropicana that will carry him through 2018.

“Some of the people in my audience are older; they’re my  generation. Sometimes when the show is over, they don’t stand up and give me an ovation because they can’t stand!” he laughs. “I had one guy, a few days ago, who was so enthused with the show that he stood up and fell over. He looked close to 90 and he just toppled over — I thought he’d died!”

But Little isn’t speaking in jest — well, not entirely anyway. The notion of an audience member dying during his show — albeit with a smile on their face — is something of a hard reality for the veteran comic.

“That actually happened to me at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto,” Little recalls during a recent interview with Zoomer. “It was way back in the 1960s and I was imitating the Prime Minister of Canada [John Diefenbaker] and somebody actually laughed so hard that they keeled over and died. Afterward, his wife came over to me and apologized for her husband dying during my act! And then she said to me, ‘Well, he died with a smile on his face.'”

Little pauses, chuckling softly to himself. “I don’t know whether he died from laughing so hard or just had a heart attack, but that doesn’t happen too often thankfully.”

It was on the strength of his early years performing in small venues across Canada and his two subsequent LP releases (titled My Fellow Canadians and Scrooge and the Stars) that landed Little a much-coveted guest spot on an episode of The Judy Garland Show in 1964. It was from there that Little solidified his reputation as a master impersonator by appearing on the variety show circuit throughout the 1960s and 1970s, accumulating 24 appearances on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast and semi-regular trips to the sets of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Julie Andrews Hour.

The seasoned pro continues to pack houses with his 90-minute one-man show at the Tropicana. “I’ve played in most of the casinos in Vegas,” he says. “I started back in the 1960s, doing two shows a night with a 24-piece orchestra — now it’s a smaller room with just a synthesizer and one show a night.”

And, like any comedian, Little still deals with his fair share of hecklers.

“I’ll get people talking to me during the show because they drink too much, but there are little tricks you can do,” he says in a conspiratorial tone. “If someone is annoying you, you say, ‘There’s a bus leaving the casino in about 20 minutes — be under it!'”

Little lets out a throaty guffaw. “Or say, ‘I’m going to imitate Lassie next — and you’re going to be the tree.’ That’s always a good one. And the other night there was this older man muttering to himself in the front row and I said, ‘Hey, haven’t I seen you at the Nuremberg Trials?'”

Master mimic, master comic. There’s no denying that Little’s sense of humour is as sharp as ever.

We caught up with Rich Little to talk writing, Johnny Carson and The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast

Rich Little stops by The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on October 30, 1973. (Photo by: Ron Tom/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

On his 1964 TV debut on The Judy Garland Show
“[I was] very nervous and lost my trousers 20 minutes before showtime. My manager went to have my suit pressed, but when he came back we noticed the pants had slipped off the hanger onto the street. We had to get an usher to give me his trousers, but they were too short so they had to shoot me from the waist up. [laughs] I got along well with Judy Garland. Her reactions during taping were quite incredible because she’d never seen me perform before. Most stars you work with on shows like that spent the whole week working with you so they’d know your whole routine backwards. But in the case of Judy Garland, they only shot it once, so you got her genuine reaction from seeing the performance for the first time. If you watch that clip today, you’ll find yourself looking at Judy the whole time — you’re definitely not looking at me — because her reactions really made that whole spot. She had a lot of problems [in real life] and was very neurotic and nervous and troubled [on set]. I don’t know if she was drinking too much or popping pills, but she was a mess. But once she got out on stage she was quite good, actually. She was very nice to me for the 10 minutes I met her.”

On how he prepares for his impersonations…
“I can hear [the impersonation] while I do it, which is something most people can’t do. They usually have to listen to themselves on tape first. But I can hear it when I actually do it. I just have to feel comfortable with it and try it out. I didn’t do Donald Trump [in my show] for a long time because I didn’t know which Donald Trump to do. Most politicians have different sounds — the speaking-out-to-a-crowd voice and a quieter one-on-one voice. And that’s the one I do, the softer Donald Trump. It’ll get better as time goes on. I use very few props. I have George Burns glasses and cigar and Jack Nicholson dark glasses and Willie Nelson braids, but that’s about it. I keep it quite simple. And, early in my career, people would steal my props. [laughs] Sometimes people would get right up from the audience and walk up to the stage and take a hat away or cigar away. They would want a momento.”

On his most memorable moments performing at the The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast
“Well, I did more of them than anybody. I even did more than Don Rickles; he did 19 and I did 24. But I can remember that there was a lot of pressure because you never knew when they were going to call you up. Another thing that could happen is that somebody is up performing before you and they use a similar joke to what you were going to use and you have to rewrite it on the spot. There was a lot of pressure, but it was enjoyable because of all the great performers. Dean and the audience always went crazy for it. You had to be pretty bad to fail on that show. But it was heavily edited — they could make somebody look better than they were by adding laughter and reaction shots of people laughing from other shows. If you didn’t go over well, they could make you look like you did.”

On his favourite Roast performance…
“Probably the Jimmy Stewart one where I show Jimmy how to imitate himself. We never rehearsed that and he didn’t know what I was going to do when he got up. He knew enough that when I told him how to ‘do himself’, he’d have to do it badly. When he figured that out I said, ‘That’s the worst Jimmy Stewart I’ve ever heard. That’s awful. Sit down!’ [laughs] It was totally ad libbed.”

On how celebrity roasts have changed since the early days…
“I think the problem, for me, is that I don’t know who the people are that are doing the roasting. And the language is incredible — they can say whatever they want, [including] a lot of four-letter words. I find them quite blue, actually. The ones they do now are a little too raunchy. With the The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast no one said anything that was highly suggestive. There may have been the occasional double entendre, but nothing really blue. A lot of the ones today are mean, too.”

On the first person he ever imitated…
“Jimmy Stewart, of the celebrities. But I was imitating teachers and local politicians long before that. I also used to imitate my mother and my aunt and some neighbours. But Jimmy Stewart was the first movie star that I ever impersonated and then I got to know him really well [years later]. That was a great thrill for me. I’d say Jimmy Stewart and Ronald Reagan were the two people I knew best of all the ones I’ve roasted. But I would eventually get to know everyone I imitated because it helped with the impression. Reagan was a wonderful man with a great sense of humour. He loved to laugh. He always wanted people to tell him jokes all the time, and he would write them down. Then he’d say [imitates Reagan] ‘Can I … can I use that?’ [laughs] He was such a down-to-earth man who loved entertainment. But I was never really close with Johnny Carson or Dean Martin. Although I was close with Jack Benny, I used to see him a lot. He used to come see my show and he was probably one of the nicest people I’ve ever known in my life. He was just a sweetheart. Not stingy in real life at all; he’s very generous. And George Burns was great, too. Those two were super people.”

On taking seven years to perfect his impression of Frank Sinatra…
“It’s not easy to do Frank. It’s a tough voice to do because, when he sings, his voice is quite unique and I’m not that great a singer. I used to say to myself, ‘Maybe if I hit somebody before I went on stage, I could do a better Frank Sinatra. If only I could hit a reporter or photographer.'” [laughs]

On his most requested impersonation…
“For older people, I think Johnny Carson. A lot of younger people don’t know who he is. Younger people don’t really know anybody I do, but I occasionally get young people coming to my show that astound me. But too few people are interested in the past — they just want their laptops and their phones. There was a 15-year-old yesterday who knew everybody that I did. That’s pretty rare. One young kid came up to me once and told me how much he enjoyed the show — but he wanted to know why I kept changing my voice all the time.” [laughs]

On who made him laugh the most over the years…
“Well, I think Don Rickles is the funniest man that ever lived. Don could make me laugh to the point where I had tears streaming down my face. I couldn’t believe how quick he was — I couldn’t believe anyone could think that fast. I’d never seen anyone like him in my life. While he was saying something he already knew what he was going to say next. His mind was going a hundred miles an hour. And he was so unique. With most comics, if someone else said something funny they needed another beat to think of an answer, but Don would answer in no time at all. It was boom, boom, boom, boom. It was kind of a shame that, toward the end of his life, he slowed down a bit, but he was still at it right up until the end. We should all be so lucky at that age.”

On how the late night talk show landscape has changed since the 1970s when Johnny Carson was king…
“Back in the 1960s and into the 1970s, people — myself included — made sure they were home in time to catch The Tonight Show. It was a must-watch. People would cut their meals short in restaurants to get home for it. I don’t think people do that anymore, but that’s how popular Johnny Carson was — people would rush back. It’s just not as popular as it used to be, although it also depends on who you like. I don’t like Stephen Colbert at all because I think he’s too cruel. And I don’t like Alec Baldwin — I think his impression of Donald Trump is good, but I find him cruel. I don’t like it when people imitate someone for political reasons or if they hate somebody. I’ve never imitated anyone that I’ve really hated. Usually, it’s people I admire. I don’t get too political. Carson was the same way. You can’t say whether Johnny was a liberal or conservative. He’d poke fun at everybody, and that’s what I do, too. I don’t think anyone knows what my political leanings are. I try to keep it to silly things that aren’t too deep. I’m not a political satirist at all, really.”

Rich Little’s Ronald Reagan sketch.

On his talent for sketching celebrity portraits…
“My favourite one I ever did was probably the Ronald Reagan one. As a matter of fact, I donated it to the Reagan Library and they put it on the wall, which is a great thrill for me. I just did a show there not too long ago and talked about Reagan for a couple of hours. I used to draw before I could do impressions. I’ve been drawing since I was eight years old. Like most kids I started with barnyard animals and then decided to do portraits. I still do a couple a week. I just did one of Don Rickles the other day that came out pretty good. I use a lot of them in my show. Every time I talk about somebody, they put up a picture of them on the screen.”

On writing his 2014 memoir Little by Little: People I’ve Known and Been
“I’d always wanted to write a book but I didn’t want to write a biography because I don’t think I’m that interesting. But I have a lot of great stories with celebrities that I’d met over the years. Most of them are gone now, you know? But they were some of the greats of Hollywood, there’s no question about that.”

On his favourite part of the writing process…
“I liked adding some kind of a punchline at the end of each chapter. I also liked that I got to say [things] from my perspective. There are a couple people I included in there, like Ed Sullivan and Paul Lynde, who I wasn’t too crazy about, but that comes through in the book. Not everybody you meet is the greatest. But most of the people I wrote about I got along well with. There’s not too many people I’ve met in my life that I didn’t get along with.”