More celebrities — “a thousand,” give or take — have passed away within the confines of one man’s talent.
Impressionist/singer Fred Travalena — known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” and “Mr. Everybody” and a staple of Vegas showrooms for several decades — died Sunday at his home in Encino, Calif, after a seven-year struggle with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He was 66.
Travalena’s death follows that of Vegas superstar and fellow impressionist Danny Gans, who died May 1, and adds to the list of other celebrities who have passed away over the last week, including Ed McMahon (June 23), Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett (June 25) and pitchman Billy Mays (Sunday).
Travalena had battled health problems since he was diagnosed with the lyphoma in 2002. He went into remission in 2003, and that same year was told he had prostate cancer. Though he had been in complete remission from the prostate cancer since then, the lyphoma returned last July.
“His wife called me and said, 'The doctors are not sure how much longer he’s going to be here,’” says entertainer Clint Holmes, a close friend of the boyish-looking Travalena for 35 years, and godfather to his son, Cory. “I jumped in the car to go to L.A. and I was in Pasadena about 40 minutes away, and I got the call he had passed. But I spent the day with the family and got to kiss him good-bye,” says Holmes, who also delivered the sad news Sunday night to several of Travalena’s impressionist colleagues, including Bob Anderson and Gordie Brown.
“I was at the hospital about three weeks ago and as they were wheeling him out of the room for a radiation treatment, he was doing his DeNiro impression,” Holmes says. “Fred’s doctor said he’s never had a patient dealing with this much serious stuff who was constantly cheering everyone else up.”
Born in the Bronx, New York on Oct. 6, 1942, and raised in Long Island, Travalena — known to have a repertoire of around 360 celebrity, political and cartoon voices — was inspired by his father, a onetime entertainer who got him into church shows as a child. Travalena often credited his big break to Rich Little, who was in the house during an open-mic showcase in the Catskills. With the audience watching, Little gave Travalena a standing ovation. They became longtime friends.
“I didn’t discover him, but I gave him a little push,” Little says. “I never met anybody who knew as much about show business as Fred. He was a walking encyclopedia on everybody. He wasn’t as structured as I am, his was kind of nonsensical humor, cartoon voices and noises and things. He was zany but he never got the attention he should have. I talked to him three weeks ago and his voice was very weak, he was fading, but he was still telling me jokes the whole time.”
Travalena became a TV regular in the 1970s on the “ABC Comedy Hour” and the Dean Martin celebrity roasts and made numerous appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” He also had many guest spots on sitcoms, dramas and game shows, hosting the game show “Anything For Money” and appearing with Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal in the premiere of their sitcom, “Good Sports.”
“I used to watch him on 'Hollywood Squares’ many times and every time he made me laugh,” remembers Brown, who performs at the Golden Nugget. “I couldn’t wait until his square was picked because he was so entertaining. I met him a couple of times. I did the Letterman show the night after he did (during Letterman’s week of impressionist guests in 2006) and he was so supportive. He was a pioneer, somebody who could take his craft and reinvent it and take it further.”
Known for his remarkable range, Travalena impersonated celebrities from nearly every corner of show business and public life, real and otherwise, including Clint Eastwood, Robert DeNiro, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Bruce Springsteen, Luciano Pavarotti, Donald Rumsfeld, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Frank Sinatra — including Sinatra imitating Boy George. He was heralded for not only vocally but physically morphing into U.S. presidents from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.
“He did a lot of unusual and different stuff, very funny and fresh and original,” says impressionist/ventriloquist Terry Fator, who performs at the Mirage. “I remember watching him when he was on 'Match Game,’ he would always do impressions when he would read the cards, he always made me laugh. I never met him, but he was definitely one of the people who influenced people like myself. I would be very surprised if Danny Gans had not been influenced by Fred Travalena.”
Travalena began performing in Las Vegas in 1971 and, after opening for Shirley MacLaine at the old MGM Grand in 1974, became a Strip regular. But that became “a burden and a benefit,” as he told the Review-Journal’s Mike Weatherford for what Travalena’s website lists as his last Las Vegas performance, at the Suncoast Hotel-Casino in October, 2007. “I was on the cusp of the comedy club phenomenon (and) on the tail end of the Vegas (classic) era,” he said then. “I was kind of in the middle. All the young agents were looking at Robin Williams and Billy Crystal in the comedy clubs.”
Choking up a bit remembering his friend, Holmes recalls meeting Travalena when they were booked on the same bill at a hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In the coffee shop, Holmes asked his guitar player: “'Who the hell is Fred Travalena?’ And then I heard a voice in the next booth say, 'Who the hell is Clint Holmes?’ We just became close friends.”
Referring to his “incredible heart,” Holmes remembers a simple story about his buddy: “He saw a bee on the street, just lying there. He picked it up and blew on it and there wasn’t any movement, so he put it in a jar, put it under a light, covered it, and the next day he took the lid off the jar and the bee flew away. That was Fred.”
Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at email@example.com or 702-383-0256.