Rich Little (1938-)

Year Born: 
1938

Pioneer

Little, Rich (1938- )

Ottawa-born entertainer Richard Caruthers Little was not yet 30  when he was being called the best impressionist in the world. 

As a boy he practised with a tape recorder in his room, inviting good-natured taunts from his two brothers.  He annoyed his teachers by imitating their voices when answering questions.  At 17, he and friend Geoff Scott won a talent contest on the Jackie Rae Show on CBC-TV Ottawa, the first time he was paid for his impressionist skills. 

In the late 50s, Rich honed his skill in clubs and, after CJOH-TV Ottawa began broadcasting in 1961, he brought Ed Sullivan, John Wayne and other celebrities before the cameras.

In the early 60s, Rich became a disc jockey and talk-show host on radio station CJET Smiths Falls, near Ottawa.  He was on-air from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and on Saturday night did Show Time – imitating Ed Sullivan.  There’s a story that one April Fool’s Day CJET had Jimmy Durante hosting the morning show followed by James Mason then Elvis Presley in the afternoon.  When Rich left the station after his marathon hoax, 500 Elvis fans were waiting.

Rich moved back to Ottawa and his mother’s house.  His father was a doctor who had died about 1960 and his mother had a theatrical background.  Rich worked with Les Lye, a pioneer at radio station CFRA Ottawa who became famous in the 1980s with the children’s show You Can’t Do That On Television.  Les and Rich together wrote the script for and Les took minor parts in Rich’s best-selling album My Fellow Canadians, a take-off of then prime minister John Diefenbaker, opposition leader Lester Pearson and other prominent personalities.  It was the first of at least nine comedy albums.  Diefenbaker was not amused. 

Rich’s impressions were noticed by singer Mel Torme who was on the production team of CBS’s The Judy Garland Show.  Rich appeared on the show in early 1964.  
He had his first movie part in 1972 in The Other Side of the Wind and from 1973 became a regular on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts as well as with Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson, and appearances on Hollywood Squares made him a celebrity.  He was also a narrator and appeared in many TV series.  His imitations were so good that, when other stars were unable to do their own soundtrack dubbings, Rich Little was frequently called in although he wasn’t always credited.  He’s been the voice of David Niven, Peter Sellers and Gene Kelly.  He hosted two TV shows, The Rich Little Show of the 70s and The New You Asked for It of 1981.
His most famous part was not one but every role in the made-for-TV A Christmas Carol (1978) which became known as Rich Little’s Christmas Carol and which won a 1979 Emmy Award and top prize at the Montreux Festival in Switzerland.  Scrooge was owner of the Boat and Bottle Works.  He drank liquor bottles dry and Bob Cratchit stuffed little boats into them.  Rich played a different actor in every role – W.C. Fields as Scrooge, Paul Lynde as Bob Cratchit, Humphrey Bogart as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Peter Falk as the Ghost of Christmas Present, Peter Sellers as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Johnny Carson as Nephew Fred, Edith Bunker as Mrs. Cratchit, Truman Capote as Tiny Tim, Richard Nixon as Jacob Marley, Groucho Marx as Fezziwig, and Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, George Burns, Jack Benny and Dean Martin as other characters.

There were other Rich Little Christmas Carols.   The first was produced in the studios at CFRA when Rich had a start-up company called Little Potts production in partnership with Joel Potts, who worked with Rich at Smiths Falls.  Joel was Rich’s first manager until Gibb Kerr took over.  Rich’s original Christmas Carol was produced for radio and heard on CHAT Medicine Hat, CFRB Toronto and CJAD Montreal among other radio stations.  The first ghost was Liberace, the second John F. Kennedy and the third John Diefenbaker.  Les Lye played some parts in the spoof.  Rich recorded the skit for Capitol Records but John F. Kennedy was assassinated almost immediately after it came out and the version was replaced.

Some of Rich’s most famous spoofs were of every U.S. president and many would-be presidents since John F. Kennedy.  He could summon up the characters of 200 and more famous people and carry on a conversation between them. 

In 1971 he married Jeanne Worden, with whom he had a daughter.  He married Jeanette Markey in 1994 and Marie Marotta in 2003. 
Rich Little was named Comedy Star of the Year by the American Guild of Variety Artists and in 2003 the Jimmy Stewart Museum gave him the Harvey Award.  He had stars on three walks of fame: in Toronto, Hollywood and Palm Springs.

He raised funds for a number of children’s charities including the Canadian Children’s Miracle Network and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.  The Ottawa Civic Hospital where he was born created the Rich Little Neo-Natal Unit after he raised more than a million dollars, and he was inducted into the Miami Children’s Hospital Pediatrics Hall of Fame.

Written by Jerry Fairbridge - January, 2004

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