Rich Little recalls working alongside Judy Garland, Lucille Ball: ‘Both were instrumental in my career’

Rich Little, hailed as “the man of a thousand voices,” has enjoyed a decades-long career charming Hollywood’s elite with his uncanny celebrity impersonations — so much so that both Judy Garland and Lucille Ball reportedly have claimed to have discovered him.

The 80-year-old recently re-released his updated memoir “People I’ve Known and Been: Little By Little,” which details his rise to stardom. Little, a professed classic movie buff, has famously imitated Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, just to name a few.

Rich Little and George H.W. Bush.

Rich Little and George H.W. Bush. (Courtesy of Rich Little)

He also has a voice for every 20th-century U.S. president, including John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and both George Bushes, among others, After entertaining at both of President Reagan’s inaugurations, Ronald Reagan himself was reported to have said, “You do me better than I do.”

Rich Little with Ronald Reagan. — Courtesy of Rich Little.

Rich Little with Ronald Reagan. — Courtesy of Rich Little.

Little spoke with Fox News about Garland, Ball, as well as Johnny Carson, Dean Martin and much more.

Fox News: What compelled you to update your book?
Rich Little: I added a chapter about Don Rickles in my book. Don had just passed away and I was so close to him. I thought he was the greatest comedian of all time. I wanted to write something about him. That’s why I was compelled to re-release the book.

Fox News: It’s been said Don Rickles made you laugh the hardest. How?
Little: He didn’t hold anything back. He was very unique in his style of attacking people but doing it tongue-in-cheek. He had a tremendous mind. He was so quick. He was always one joke ahead of you. He was not only thinking of what he was saying, but he was also thinking of what he was going to say next.

There are very few people who can do that. Robin Williams could do that too. He was the same type. Very fast, always funny. Not cruel, but possessing biting material. President Reagan, who was always very serious, laughed at Don Rickles. ... I don’t know if he understood what he was saying, but he was never offended.

Comedian Don Rickles speaks after receiving the Johnny Carson Award during the second annual 2012 Comedy Awards in New York April 28, 2012.

Comedian Don Rickles speaks after receiving the Johnny Carson Award during the second annual 2012 Comedy Awards in New York April 28, 2012. (Reuters)

Fox News: Lucille Ball and Judy Garland both claimed they discovered you. Who was right? 
Little: I don’t know if either discovered me. The first U.S. show I did, 1964, was 'The Judy Garland Show.' That was my first big television show, which established me. So you could say she certainly helped my career. But she didn’t discover me. Lucille Ball, that was the second show she did. That was just a great show to do. She was such an icon by then. She was certainly one of the funniest people that ever lived. Both of those ladies were very instrumental in my career, I would say that.

Fox News: What was your initial impression of Judy Garland?
Little: Judy Garland had a lot of problems when I did her show in 1964. She was difficult because she had no confidence. She was drinking a lot. We taped the show until three in the morning mainly because Judy wouldn’t come out of her dressing room. But she was a huge star and always extremely nice to me.

(AP)

The fact that she never went to rehearsal was to my benefit because if you watch what I did on the show, she’s singing for the first time. She had never seen me do any impressions before that because she never came to a rehearsal. And so her reaction to me on the show was quite genuine. It wasn’t fake. Usually, when you tape a television show and you’ve been rehearsing all week, you know everything that’s going to be happening. But in her case, she had no idea what I was going to do. And so when you watch that clip today, you can’t take your eyes off her. You’re watching her more than me because her reaction is so genuine and sort of helped my routine.

Rich Little and Judy Garland. — Courtesy of Rich Little

Rich Little and Judy Garland. — Courtesy of Rich Little

Fox News: Despite her personal troubles, it’s been said she welcomed you graciously. How stunned were you?
Little: Very. She didn’t really like impersonators. She told Mel Tormé, who wanted to book me for the show – Mel and I were friends – that she didn’t like impersonators. But then she heard me impersonate James Mason, whom she worked with on 'A Star is Born.' She loved James Mason. She thought the world of him. When she heard my impersonation of James Mason on this tape, that’s when she booked me. It was because of my impersonation of James Mason that I got on 'The Judy Garland Show.' And I remember years later running into James Mason and thanking him. He had no idea what I was talking about.

Fox News: What surprised you the most about Lucille Ball?
Little: She was a complete professional. She didn’t stand for any fooling around on the set. She expected people to know their lines. When I went to the first rehearsal, I memorized all of my lines. She was impressed by that. The best way to get along with Lucille Ball was to be prepared to work. We got along absolutely fine. She had tremendous talent and knew everything about the business. She knew what all the other actors were doing and knew their lines, as well as her own. She was a real pro.

Fox News: Which impersonation impressed her the most?
Little: She liked my John Wayne impression. That’s the basis of the routine we did. I was imitating John Wayne. Gail Gordon, who played her boss, was blindfolded and he thought it was the real John Wayne. That was the whole point of the show. It was a silly premise, but very fun to do.

Rich Little and Lucille Ball. — Courtesy of Rich Little

Rich Little and Lucille Ball. — Courtesy of Rich Little

Fox News: When did you realize you could do impersonations?
Little: When I started to get paid for it *laughs*. Up until that time it was just a hobby. When I started to do a few charity things in my hometown of Ottawa, Canada and they paid me 5-10 dollars for imitating people, then I started to take it more seriously. I never thought there was going to be money in it. It was just a hobby until then.

Fox News: Who’s the easiest and hardest to impersonate?
Little: Jimmy Stewart was always easy to impersonate. I had seen most of his movies and was a huge fan of his. And he had such a distinctive voice. I knew him very well personally. So it wasn’t very difficult to imitate him. The hardest voice for me to do is the one I can’t do. Barack Obama is hard to do. And Donald Trump is pretty hard to do, too. A lot of people can look like Donald Trump, but the voice is very distinct. I’ve never heard anyone do a perfect impression of Donald Trump.

Fox News: How did Jimmy Stewart feel about your impression?
Little: He loved it! He told me he wished I had been around in the ‘40s so I could have dubbed some of his movies for him.

Jimmy Stewart was always easy to impersonate, according to Little.

Jimmy Stewart was always easy to impersonate, according to Little. (AP)

Fox News: Who’s the most requested?
Little: Johnny Carson. I became known really as the guy who imitated Johnny Carson. I would say Johnny Carson and Richard Nixon were the two people I was known to imitate.

Fox News: It’s been said Johnny Carson didn’t want people to know him personally.
Little: Johnny was a loner. He was not very social. He kept to himself. He wasn’t outgoing. He was friendly, but not terribly friendly. When you did his show, you didn’t have a lot of conversations with him. And you never went to his dressing room or anything like that. You just did the show and wave goodbye. I remember he used to drive himself to NBC in his little sports car and he would just take off at the end of the show. He would give you a wave and that was about it. You never really got to know Johnny Carson. Nobody really knew Johnny Carson. I don’t think any of his wives knew him either!

Rich Little with Johnny Carson. — Getty

Rich Little with Johnny Carson. — Getty

Fox News: Richard Nixon wasn’t impressed by you. Why?
Little: I imitated Richard Nixon in front of him and he wondered why I was talking to him in such a funny voice. He didn’t realize that I was doing him at all! I thought I did him rather well because when I left the party, his wife went with me *laughs*. No, that’s not true. But I did imitate Richard Nixon in front of him. He had no idea what I was doing. He was just bewildered. He didn’t have the greatest sense of humor. And I think he wore that same blue suit for over 40 years! I don’t think he took the hanger off of it.

Richard Nixon with Rich Little.

Richard Nixon with Rich Little. (Courtesy of Rich Little)

Fox News: Some say that a show like 'Dean Martin Celebrity Roast' couldn’t exist today. Do you agree?
Little: They could exist today, but you don’t have the great comedians like we had back then. There’s not much class to the personalities of today. We just don’t have the type of people who are good at it anymore. They’re all gone. I was lucky to be with all of these great talents at a young age. They were older and established by then. So I worked with the best. The greatest, really. We just don’t have the comedians and the personalities that we used to have. The roasts are kind of a dying business really.

Fox News: You did 24 roasts. Which is your favorite memory?

Little: I remember two minutes from filming, Dean Martin asked me who the guest of honor was. I couldn’t believe he didn’t know *laughs*. But he didn’t! He had no idea. I told him it was Michael Landon and he said, 'Oh that’s a good choice! We’re going to have fun.' It was just unbelievable that we were going to tape a show and he didn’t know who the guest was. But that was typical Dean.

Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. (AP)

He didn’t really particularly care. He did his show and never really went to rehearsal. And he didn’t take anything seriously. And the audience loved the fact that he was just ad-libbing and having fun.

Fox News: How was it roasting Frank Sinatra?
Little: When we roasted Frank Sinatra, he was in a good mood. Frank was a man of moods. If he was in a bad mood, you stayed away from him. But he was in a great mood because he was surrounded by a lot of people that he really loved on the roast. He could take it and just had a good time. Nobody worried about insulting him. It was one of the better roasts that were ever done, the roast of Frank Sinatra. There was Gene Kelly, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball — you name it. He was in a wonderful mood and it showed on the show.