Frye was the master impressionist in the days of Presidents Johnson and Nixon, Watergate and the Vietnam War.
His Richard Nixon was a more truthful version of the resident in the White House, because it admitted what the real Nixon never would. Although he was a brilliantly talented mimic, after Nixon’s resignation Frye faded from view.
“My administration has taken crime out of the streets,” Mr. Frye’s Nixon said in one Watergate-era routine, “and put it in the White House where I can keep an eye on it.”
That was from David Frye’s obituary in today’s Washington Post, in which I learned what became of the political satirist as well as where he came from (born David Shapiro) before the comedy albums and TV appearances.
I’m tempted to say that Frye’s heyday was also the heyday of impressions, and that impersonations of the famous in hindsight was a fad. Saturday Night Live, of course, has a long history of presidential impersonations stemming from those times. But this had to have been a golden age, with so many talented mimics in one place — Frye, Rich Little, Frank Gorshin, Sammy Davis Jr., Will Jordan, John Byner, George Kirby, Marilyn Michaels and Charlie Callas, who died Jan. 27.
Mimicry has not disappeared. Perhaps the tendency is innate, an inborn urge to try to sound like someone else. Imitating is humanity’s way of learning survival skills, and we begin our studies soon after birth.
In school, during that golden age of impersonation, I began to hone my own impressions of TV and film stars and politicians, soaking up lessons from Frye & Co. — John Wayne, Henry Fonda, LBJ. George McGovern, I learned, sounded like Liberace, so I was able to master two impressions at once.
Later I realized that I had not been imitating these famous people at all. Rather I was imitating the imitations of them. With time my impressions became minimalistic, shorthand. “Well,” signifies Ronald Reagan. A throaty growl is the elderly Katherine Hepburn. (I can do a fine young Kate as well.)
In school I also imitated my teachers. At this I did pretty well, and learned that mimicry can also be a maladaptive trait when practiced on the powerful.
But that may be the initial attraction. A good mimic can show himself the equal of the imitated, whether child to adult or citizen to president. Imitation is at once a demonstration of flattery and a threat. A good mimic can run away with the image of the imitated. A brilliant mimic can also steal his soul.
You can see hints of this in this David Frye appearance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967. See what it takes to be a master:
This soliloquy remains my lasting impression of Nixon. It is from the Washington Post obit:
“As the man in charge,” his version of the president said in the 1973 album “Richard Nixon: A Fantasy,” “I, of course, accept the full responsibility. But not the blame. Let me explain the difference. People who are to blame lose their jobs. People who are responsible do not.”
Kevin Spacey seems like a wonderful throwback to that golden age.