Rich Traditions


David Letterman's tribute to impressionists next week–not Monet and Cezanne but Little and Caliendo and the like–reminded me of how much a TV staple the impressionists were when I was growing up, and how I kind of miss them in that nostalgic way I get before I remember the firehoses and Vietnam footage that went along with those wonderly, wacky yesteryears..

Back then there were variety shows everywhere sporting besweatered crooners and aging impressarios, as prevalent as the procedural bloodbaths of today, only Andy Williams and Perry Como and Ed Sullivan were not beheading anybody or hanging them from meathooks to get 'em in the tent.

Anyway. Letterman is showcasing several impressionists on his show, a follow-up to his salute to ventriloquists of some while back.

I, for one, will be tuning in, so their sweeps stunt will have drawn at least one more viewer than they usually get in the Eggerton household.

Rich Little is a no-brainer. He is arguably the king of TV impressionists. Certainly the most versatile. Nixon was a big hit for him, but IU think David Frye's was better. But his Bogart was dead on (speaking of which, most of the impressionist's favorite targets are no longer with us).

And Rich Little does the best Fred MacMurray and Adam West in the biz, not that he has had much competition.

Frank Caliendo is also a must-see (see more below).

But just the mention of impressionists gets me thinking about all the others.

Jim Bailey surfaced only  a few years ago on either Ally McBeal or The Practice–I forget which. He was the best female impersonator around and a frequent TV guest on the variety circuit of my youth. His Judy Garland is not to be believed (I acturally bought his album, or doesn't that surprise you), and his voice has been one of the most powerful and versatile instruments in Vegas–where TV impressionists went when the variety shows died out–with a campy Streisand and a pretty neat Peggy Lee.

Then there was Will Jordan, whose face seemed to magically morph from Gable to Crosby to his peerless Sullivan. And George Kirby's Satchmo, and Frank Gorshin with his puckered Cagney and those Richard Burton soliloquies. (He showed up on The Practice,too, I think. Does David Kelly also have a thing for impressionists.)

And Marilyn Michaels, and Ron Moody, and Frye, whose Nixon record was a boomer staple ("Company coming up, Ladybird, beautify yourself!").

By the way, if anyone knows where I can get a DVD of The Kopycats (or was it The Copykats, or  The Kopykats?), that British early 70's syndicated import featuring a veritable smorgasbord of impressionists including all those named above, let me know. I have been searching for it for years, but was once told it might not be available because of rights issues.

I can't find it via Google, which I think means it must never have existed.

By the by, I think new SNL addition Frank Caliendo is one of the best of the new breed. His Bush is unbeatable–he did it for Cheney at a Dinner in Washington and Rumsfeld wanted to get him to do it over at Defense, I overheard). and his John Madden is flawless.

The best of today's bunch, which is a different breed of the stand-up impressionist of yesteryear, is probably SNL vet Darrell Hammond, who satirically inhabits, rather than mimics, his characters, and whose best-of DVD got a rave review from the Washington Post this week.

By John Eggerton