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Saturday, January 29, 2011

David Frye, RIP

And another funny man has died. There was a time when David Frye was the uncontested king of political impressions. His Nixon was the one to beat and I don't think anyone ever did. Nor could they top his Lyndon Johnson, his George Wallace or (especially) his William F. Buckley. That he could replicate the voices was not as impressive as the way he could somehow scrunch his face and shoulders to make himself look like the person he was doing.

He told others that it was only about the face and expression with him; that he spent very little time trying to learn anyone's voice. If he could get the face right, he would automatically sound like the person. His modus operandi required a mirror for practice. If he worked a club that didn't have a dressing room with a mirror, he could be found before his performance in the men's room, rehearsing in front of the one they had in there. And if there wasn't one available to him, he was likely to walk out and go home.

In his jacket pocket, he always carried photos — usually torn sloppily out of newspapers — of the people he did. Once on The Merv Griffin Show, Merv unexpectedly asked him to do his Al Capp impression and Frye froze up. He couldn't do Capp out of nowhere so he turned away from the camera as much as possible in a seated position, pulled a wad of photos out of his pocket and began riffling through, looking for Capp. Puzzled, Merv asked, "What are those?" And Frye, a bit embarrassed, muttered, "I look at pictures of them."

Then he found his Al Capp photo, locked onto the face and instantly turned into Al Capp. It was a bit scary at times. No other impressionist could crawl inside his subjects quite as thoroughly...but no other impressionist seemed like he was utterly possessed by them.

I can't fully explain why his career took such a plunge in the late seventies and eighties. This obit suggests it was because he couldn't survive the loss of Nixon and L.B.J. as primary targets. Maybe...but others came along who were as ripe for mocking and Frye didn't rise to those occasions. I suspect it was something deeper within him, coupled with a decreasing marketplace for impressionists. Mimics like Rich Little, Frank Gorshin and John Byner all managed to work often as character actors...but David Frye only did imitations.

I would end this by saying, "He will be missed" but I think he already has been...for years.

Here's a clip of him on the Smother's Brothers Show on CBS:

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