Interview: Master Impressionist Rich Little Takes the Stage as Richard Nixon
Little has been honing his Nixon impression for decades, and in a new play, he gets to star as the former President.
The man of a thousand voices is coming to the off-Broadway stage. Rich Little, the masterful celebrity and political impressionist, is unbelievably making his New York City theatrical debut this month in Trial on the Potomac — The Impeachment of Richard Nixon at the Theatre at St. Clement's. Written by George J. Bugatti and inspired by Geoff Shepard's The Real Watergate Scandal, the imagined history play casts the 82-year-old Little as Richard Nixon himself, a persona he's been honing since Nixon was actually in the White House. Here, Little tells us all about it.
What made you interested in doing the play?
I wasn't that interested in doing the play at the beginning, because I never thought Nixon was that sympathetic a character. A lot of people disliked him and thought he was arrogant and guilty as hell. He's not an endearing personality, like Reagan is or George Bush. But he's interesting an interesting person to do – the way he walks, the way he talks, the way he phrases things. Whether people will get something out of the play remains to be seen. Maybe Nixon is passé and people are more interested in the politics of today. I'm sure there are a lot of young people who don't even know who Nixon is.
How long have you been doing Nixon?
I've been doing Nixon since the '60s. He was one of the first people I imitated. A lot of people saw him as a cartoon and exaggerated him, but I exaggerated him not as much as some other impersonators. You can be an impressionist and give your impression of somebody, or it can be a carbon copy. I mostly go for carbon copy, trying to do the voice the way it is. If I'm studying a voice, I'll watch videos over and over and practice on a tape recorder, and keep trying to make it better. Some voices come quickly and some don't. Nixon was a fairly easy voice to do. He was larger than life, but he was identifiable.
Tell me more about developing your version of Nixon for this production.
I'm trying to do Nixon the way he would be in real life. I studied him a lot years ago and I still haven't forgotten a lot of the mannerisms. The phony smile and the blue suit and the way he walks. He had a very distinctive walk. I think when he bought the suit he didn't take the hanger out of it. I thought they might want to put a nose on me in the show, but they want to keep it pretty pure.
Did you ever do Nixon for Nixon?
I did Nixon once for Nixon. It was a Republican garden party he threw in San Clemente, and all of Hollywood showed up. They were all Republicans back then. I did it in front of him and everybody gathered around. The interesting thing was, as I was imitating him, he didn't know I was doing him. He turned to his wife Pat and said "Why is this young man speaking in this strange voice?" When I'm telling that story, I like to say "But I think I did the voice very well, because when I left the party, Pat went with me!" Which is not true but it makes a difference as the punch line.