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SNL’s Masters of Mimicry

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I’ve always felt that SNL is at its best when it has one or two top-notch mimics. That’s especially true during presidential election years, when millions of people tune in to get a weekly dose of political satire. Even beyond political sketches,  the show’s best casts tend to include at least one great impressionist. These are my favorites, through the years.

DAN AYKROYD

Aykroyd was the gold standard for SNL mimics during the show’s early years. He had a way of channeling the inner intensity of subjects, from Richard Nixon to Jimmy Carter. What made it even more impressive was that he did those impersonations while keeping his mustache! For my money, the best Aykroyd impression was TV host Tom Snyder.

EDDIE MURPHY

Murphy was a much different sort of mimic. He didn’t try to sound like a recording of his subjects. He picked out a couple of mannerisms and a hairstyle, then added his own bit of attitude. It made his Stevie Wonder, James Brown and Buckwheat incredibly memorable.

JOE PISCOPO

Here was a guy who lost himself inside his characters. I think fans forget how great Piscopo was, as Frank Sinatra and David Letterman. He combined voice skills with makeup and acting – all to wonderful effect. He should have stayed on the show a few more years before going solo.

PHIL HARTMAN

To me, Hartman was a genius. All of his characters, including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Ed McMahon, were infused with a comic insanity. Yet he kept them firmly in place, because his acting chops were so solid. And his crazy version of Ross Perot running mate James Stockdale in 1992 still makes me laugh.

DANA CARVEY

A good case can be made that Carvey was the best mimic SNL has ever had. George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Stewart, Ross Perot, Regis Philbin, Johnny Carson. Carvey absolutely nailed those impressions, and you could tell he loved every minute of them. He was like a heat-seeking missile of mimicry. If the audience reacted to a particular gesture or word, Carvey would refine it and build on it. Perfection.

WILL FERRELL

Ferrell reminded me of Eddie Murphy, in the sense that his impressions were great without necessarily sounding like the person. His George W. Bush, Harry Caray and James Lifton capitalized on very insightful study by Ferrell. He got at the inconsistencies and oddities of each subject, then took it to the extreme.

DARRELL HAMMOND

For quite a while, Hammond was the show’s go-to impressionist. He could do Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Donald Trump – and of course Bill Clinton. The line, “I. Am. Bulletproof,” is as good a description of Clinton’s last two years in office as any I’ve heard. Same with Al Gore and “Lockbox.”

AMY POEHLER

Amy Poehler was so talented that her mimicry skills were sort of secondary. But remember how funny she was as Nancy Grace? Or Hillary Clinton? To me, one of her best moments was when she did a pitch-perfect Christopher Walken, in front of Christopher Walken.

BILL HADER

I consider Hader a stealth-mimic. For some reason, he goes in for obscure characters who take you by surprise. He does a fantastic Alan Alda, Al Pacino and James Carville. Hader is a craftsman with those impressions, copying the voices with care and giving them demonic grins. His Keith Morrison from “Dateline NBC” is a masterpiece.

KRISTEN WIIG

Wiig was smart to downplay her mimicry on SNL, since her stock characters were so strong. Still, she was amazing when she did Kathie Lee Gifford, Suze Ormond, Megan Mullally and Tanning Mom.

JAY PHAROAH

Jay Pharoah has a ton of talent, but I’m waiting for him to fulfill that potential. He does a devastating Denzel Washington and Will Smith, and his Barack Obama is coming along. If he can bolster his acting ability, he’ll be an SNL mainstay.

I guess a few more great mimics on the show is too much to ask. Wouldn’t be prudent.

A Cavalcade of Movie Cameos

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A well-executed movie cameo is a beautiful thing. It jump-starts an ordinary film and propels a good film to greatness. These are some of my favorites.

TOM CRUISE IN “TROPIC THUNDER” (2008)

Cruise is stunning in this cameo – and totally unrecognizable as studio mogul Les Grossman. His end-of-the-movie dance scene? Crazily hypnotic. I’m not kidding.

WILL FERRELL IN “WEDDING CRASHERS” (2005)

There’s a high degree of difficulty to Ferrell’s cameo in “Wedding Crashers.” His character is mentioned several times in larger-than-life terms, and you don’t really expect to see him. When we do see him at the end of the film, Ferrell makes him one notch wilder than anyone else. He’s the right guy for the job.

ALEC BALDWIN IN “GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS” (1992)

So here’s the Cameo King. Baldwin delivers an electrifying motivational speech from Hell in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” It’s the kind of performance that elevates an entire career. It’s also a performance I’ve quoted from for years. Just hope that Mitch & Murray from Downtown never send this guy to your office.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK IN “NORTH BY NORTHWEST” (1959)

As many fans are aware, Hitchcock loved to make a cameo appearance in films he directed. My favorite was in the title sequence of “North by Northwest,” where he is trying to catch a bus. Rather than just being funny or odd, these cameos added a sinister sense that things are not what they seem to be.

DREW BARRYMORE IN “SCREAM” (1996)

Barrymore sets a terrific tone for the movie. She’s having fun with the role AND she’s taking it seriously, by screaming her little heart out.

TIM ROBBINS, BEN STILLER, LUKE WILSON IN “ANCHORMAN” (2004)

I absolutely love this scene. A bunch of TV people from rival San Diego stations go all “Gangs of New York” on Will Ferrell in “Anchorman.” Watch out for Tim Robbins as a hoodlum from PBS.

THE THREE STOOGES IN “IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD” (1963)

This cameo is perfect because it understands you don’t even have to have the Three Stooges say anything. Just give the audience a chance to see them full-on and pause the camera a couple of seconds.

BILL MURRAY IN “ZOMBIELAND” (2009)

Murray is sheer heaven playing himself – playing a zombie. Like all great cameos, it comes straight out of the blue, like finding money in the street. And get this: Bill makes comments on his actual movie career, while playing a version of himself pretending to be a zombie.

GENE HACKMAN IN “YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN” (1974)

With his long gray beard, it’s hard to tell this is Hackman playing a blind man opposite Peter Boyle’s monster. Hackman handles the scene’s simple shtick with superb comic timing.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER IN “TERMINATOR: SALVATION” (2009)

Just when you think a “Terminator” movie can’t offer any more surprises, along comes a digital effect that places a young Arnold back into the futuristic saga. Truly amazing.

CLINT EASTWOOD IN “CASPER” (1995)

You mean you didn’t see the 1995 movie version of Casper the Friendly Ghost? Don’t worry – it’ll be on cable several times this month for Halloween. Look for Clint to pop up in a wonderfully silly scene in a mirror.

TOM CRUISE, GWYNETH PALTROW, DANNY DEVITO, JOHN TRAVOLTA IN “AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER” (2002)

Mike Myers cast his movie-within-a-movie brilliantly. It seems as if Cruise, Paltrow & company enjoyed themselves as much as the audience.

RICHARD BURTON IN “WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT?” (1965)

Burton’s cameo is so fleeting I couldn’t even find a picture of it. This was a 60s hipster cameo in a hipster movie from a hipster era. Burton is on the screen only a moment, rubbing elbows with pal Peter O’Toole in a strip club. O’Toole yells out, “Say hello to what’s her name!” It’s a reference to Burton’s wife, Elizabeth Taylor.

MIKE TYSON IN “THE HANGOVER” (2009)

Casting Tyson was inspired. I think it works particularly well because Iron Mike isn’t even the second or third strangest twist in the plot. Events are so far out of control that Tyson is able to play it low-key, making it ever so cool.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN IN “HIGH FIDELITY” (2000)

Springsteen’s appearance here is a classic, fantasy cameo. He shows up to offer John Cusack some soulful, sage advice.

BRUCE WILLIS IN “OCEANS TWELVE” (2004)

Willis has a tricky job to do in this cameo. He’s playing himself, while pretending the movie stars all around him are ordinary crooks. Some viewers found it too forced; I thought it worked.

SEAN CONNERY IN “ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES” (1991)

Some cameos, like this one, are intended to add a bit of pedigree to a movie. Connery rides in as King Richard to Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood here. The chemistry between them isn’t great (unlike “The Untouchables”), but I’m always happy to see Connery. He’s movie royalty.

BILLY CRYSTAL AND CAROL KANE IN “THE PRINCESS BRIDE” (1987)

My favorite cameo ever. Crystal and Kane played an old wizard and his wife, bickering their way into film greatness in “The Princess Bride.” They are hilarious. Puts me in the mood for a mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich – with the mutton nice and lean.

So many cameos, so little time. Please tell me your own favorites!

Fez Hall of Fame

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More than just a silly, cylindrical hat with a tassel, the fez is a personal statement. I’m just not sure what that statement is. It might be, “Hey, check out this crazy lid!” Or it might be, “People, I’m operating on a level of coolness you can’t possibly understand. Seriously.” Either way, one should always respect the fez.

WILL FERRELL

As Mustafa, Dr. Evil’s henchman in the “Austin Powers” movies, Ferrell uses his peppy fez to full advantage.

MOROCCO MOLE

Without the fez, he’s a squinty little dude. With the fez, he’s the world-famous partner of Secret Squirrel. Need I say more? Of course, there wouldn’t be a Morocco Mole without…

SYDNEY GREENSTREET

Greenstreet, a favorite here at The Jimbo List, famously wore a fez in “Casablanca,” one of the best movies with or without headgear.

AKBAR & JEFF

Part of Matt Groening’s “Life in Hell” comic strip, Akbar and Jeff are hilariously enigmatic. They fight, they love, they worry, they accuse. In fezzes.

LAUREL AND HARDY

Here’s the situation in “Sons of the Desert.” Stan and Ollie want to go to a lodge convention in Chicago, but need to trick their wives in order to do so. The problem? The pesky newsreel that films them at the convention, in their lodge fezzes!

SHRINERS

Members of this fraternal organization have worn their fezzes proudly for more than a century – most conspicuously when they drive their nutty little cars in parades.

ALADDIN

It may not be regulation, but this animated Disney fez is more than a little jaunty.

So that’s my Fez Patrol. Who did I leave out?