The Power of Impersonation: Richard Halpern
March 14, 2016
In Hollywood, we’re often doing double takes: was that Brad Pitt? Not only can you see all kind of celebrities walking down the street, but you’ll see comic book characters, political figures, and even cartoons. But dressing up as someone is one thing; making people believe you are the real deal is another. Richard Halpern has mastered the art of impersonation.
After moving from New York to Southern California as a child with his mom and sister, Halpern studied theatre and broadcasting in college. He registered with Central Casting where he landed some extra work, but a phone call to Rick Dees’ radio show changed everything. While attending Long Beach State University, he had been driving and listening to Dees, and heard someone doing an impression. Halpern had always done voices since he was a child, so he figured he would give it a try. He called in as “Tootsie,” Dustin Hoffman’s gender-bending character from the 1982 film of the same name.
Dees ended up using his impression on the radio several times. Halpern quickly became a regular of Rick Dees’ morning show on KIIS FM. He added more characters and voices to his repertoire including Sean Penn, Pee Wee Herman, Sean Connery, Joan Rivers, and Truman Capote. Dees himself served as a mentor to Halpern.
Another one of his impersonations soon became popular: Norman Bates, famously portrayed by Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic “Psycho.” By this time, Halpern had visited Dees’ studio on Sunset Boulevard, where he recorded several bits. This in turn led to live appearances at KIIS FM radio events, where he brought his version of the “Tootsie” character to life.
“My mom helped with my wardrobe,” Halpern said.
“Rick Dees is the single greatest influence on my career,” Halpern said. “He taught me about comedy, appropriateness, and timing. He was very generous, and offered me so many opportunities.”
In 1997, a character came along that would again change Halpern’s life. Mike Myers’ character Austin Powers was unleashed upon the world via Jay Roach’s film, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Halpern was at an early advance screening of the film in what is now the LA Fitness at the Hollywood Galaxy shopping center.
“No one knew what it was at the time,” Halpern said. “But after we watched it, I told my friend that Austin Powers would make a great Halloween costume. My friend said, ‘eh, no one will even remember Austin Powers by Halloween.”
Luckily, according to Halpern, the film caught on with an unintended audience: the fathers of the children who went to see the movie. “It was all about the ‘60s and the Beatles and that time in London, and when it came out on video it became a huge hit. EVERYONE was Austin Powers for Halloween that year!”
Everyone including Halpern, whose take on the character was met with much admiration; so much so that his dentist hired him to portray the character at a party. Very quickly, Halpern started turning his impersonation of Austin Powers into a career.
KIIS FM brought him out to their huge Wango Tango event at Dodger Stadium. Nancy Sinatra was performing, and Halpern had been told that her people absolutely did not want him to join her on stage. However, Sinatra saw Halpern as Powers in the wings and personally asked him to come out. The next day, the KTLA Morning News mistakenly reported that Mike Myers himself had appeared at the event! Halpern was quick to get his way onto the morning news show to set the record straight – which led to a bevy of additional job opportunities.
So what does Mike Myers think of Halpern’s impression?
“I met him a couple of times, and he was very nice,” Halpern says. “The second time I met him, I was in character as Austin Powers, and Myers remarked that I looked just like him; he was very complimentary.” Halpern is extra cautious to never represent himself as Mike Myers himself, and even makes sure to distance his character from the actual character to avoid legal hassles (in the film “Miss Cast Away” – which oddly features Michael Jackson’s final film role – Halpern’s character is billed as “Groovy Guy.”)
Nowadays, there are many Austin Powers impersonators, and many of them reach out to Halpern for guidance. “I’m like the mom,” Halpern laughs.
Halpern’s talents don’t end there, however. Lately, he has been making quite the name for himself as a singer, paying tribute to vocalist Al Jolson with his popular Hollywood Cavalcade show.
“I’ve loved Al Jolson and have been singing his songs since I started,” Halpern said. “One of my little jokes is when people ask me if I cut my hair to look like Al Jolson, to which I reply: no. It fell out on it’s own.”
Halpern has performed the standards at clubs and events all around, but didn’t initially think of it as singing, but rather just emulating the singers of that period.
“I have an affinity for that era – the 1920s and 1930s – I can sound like it, and have studied it. I can do the acting too. I’m not trained vocally, but I can hear and pick up nuances in people’s voices. That has benefitted me with the music,” Halpern said.
Richard Halpern’s Hollywood Calvalcade will come to the Cicada Restaurant Club this Sunday March 20. Tickets are available at www.cicadaclub.com/hollywood.
For booking and more information, visit www.richardhalpern.info.
Devin Strecker serves as Director of Communications and Social Media for the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance. He previously spent eight years working for the nearby Hollywood Media District BID. He graduated from Fort Hays State University, near his hometown of Paradise, Kansas, with a degree in information networking and telecommunications. He is a musician with his own band, Devin Tait and the Traitors.