MARCH 18, 2009
The waiter had been staring for some time before he finally approached the table where Brent Mendenhall was eating a late-evening meal in London. The waiter apologized, but he had to ask: You're not by any chance...
The usual conclusion to that question is: "... George W. Bush?" Mendenhall is a dead ringer for the forty-third president, right down to the what-me-worry lines on his forehead. But, in this instance, the Indian-born waiter recognized Mendenhall for who he actually is: the man who played a comic-relief W. in the Bollywood action film Mission Istanbul. He might also have recognized him as a comic-relief W. in Uwe Boll's Postal, or as, um, a comic-relief W. in "The George Lopez Show." In fact, Mendenhall's crazy-quilt Internet Movie Database page reveals a filmography that consists entirely of roles in which he plays the president, and that doesn't include his appearances as W. in numerous TV commercials and at innumerable corporate events. Over the last eight years, it's been a good business for him: Successful full-time impersonators earn in the low six figures and get to see the world while working almost exclusively on weekends. The question for Mendenhall and the handful of others who make their primary living impersonating, imitating, or otherwise entertaining as the departed president is whether they'll continue to get work with Bush out of office.
Will Ferrell, who just opened a one-man show on Broadway in which he revives the slyly stupid (or stupidly sly) Bush he made famous on "Saturday Night Live, " will be fine. For members of the smaller, stranger presidential look-alike industry, though, things are more uncertain. Impersonators don't get corporate board sinecures or automatic inclusion on prospective lists of future baseball commissioners when their terms end. This leaves Mendenhall et al in the same quandary as many working Americans: worried about how their skills will translate in years ahead, wondering if they have a place in the current economy, and ... well, concerns about future roles in Japanese commercials are probably specific to the performers in question.
There's a distinction to be drawn between Bush impersonators--whose acts are based on physical resemblance and who perform exclusively as their "character"--and comic impressionists, who imitate the president as part of larger, more diverse acts. Mendenhall is squarely in the former camp and credits his experience in the corporate world--he was a project manager in the construction business for 29 years--as a better preparation for the impersonator's gambit than his limited community theater credits. "He never did get the voice down, and I think it has probably cost him some money," says filmmaker Chad Friedrichs, who worked with Mendenhall on First Impersonator, a 2008 documentary about the ups and downs of the look-alike business. "But he's good. He does the--you know Bush's shoulder thing, how he moves them when he laughs? Brent does that really well; it always gets good laughs."
That knack for Bush's pinched, over-urgent physicality--as well as a God-given similarity to the president's physiognomy--also briefly made Mendenhall the go-to Bush on "The Tonight Show," before he lost his job to an impersonator named Steve Bridges. "I shouldn't say this, but [Bridges] might be the biggest impersonator out there," Mendenhall allows without a hint of animosity. "But he wears a prosthetic face."
And it's here that the line between impersonator and impressionist begins to blur. Because, while Bridges does indeed wear a latex mask when he's performing as Bush, he also has a Silence of the Lambs-esque collection of "faces" that he dons to portray political figures from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Ronald Reagan. Bridges's versatility puts him more in the realm of the comic impressionists, but his one-character-at-a-time policy is "impersonator" all the way.
The distinction is important to James Adomian, a comic and actor who frequently performed as Bush on "The Late Late Show." "I'm not violently opposed to [being called an] impersonator," Adomian says. "But I think it just technically refers to a sad, creepy, unfunny version of comic impressions ... strange people who spend all their time playing one or a very few well-known celebrities all the time." Adomian is a comedian and, as such, doesn't go to big impersonator-industry showcases or do the corporate events that make up the backbone--about 80 percent, by Mendenhall's estimate--of an impersonator's bookings.
Bush is just one of Adomian's many comic imitations, and one he's happy to leave behind. "I won't turn down any great offers," the 28-year-old says of his future as W. "But I'm not going to actively seek out work. ... There will always be new dragons to slay." Besides, he adds, "It hurt my face muscles to mimic Bush's dim monkey smirk for more than half an hour at a time."
The pointed Bush of Adomian's live act is also a stark contrast to the scrupulously anodyne impersonator model. "Corporate-clean and bipartisan," is how Mendenhall describes his 25-minute performances. "I'll make a little bit of fun, but I'm not going to say any foul words or anything like that."
Still, this doesn't mean that Mendenhall--a self-identified moderate Republican who made a small campaign contribution to Bush in 2004--was among the 22 percent who approved of Bush at the end. "I felt the same way about the last few years as everyone else," he says. "It's tough when your character does things that make him unpopular and it winds up hurting you. ... Sometimes, I felt like the Britney Spears or Michael Jacksons do."
So what's next for Mendenhall? He'd like to log another year on the road before going back to "just being Brent from Missouri." It helps that, as much as Mendenhall enjoys his craft, he never really wanted to be in show business in the first place. Vaughn Meader, whose grippingly weird story is at the heart of First Impersonator, did. Meader was a struggling comedian and musician before he became a huge star thanks to "The First Family," a Grammy-winning, multi-platinum 1962 comedy record featuring his uncanny Kennedy imitation. But Meader couldn't find work after Kennedy's assassination and, by the late '60s, with some help from LSD, alternately believed himself to be Jesus Christ and a character he called "The Blue Bunny." Since the impersonator scene has become less about show business than what Mendenhall terms "corporate entertainment," such hard professional landings aren't as less likely these days.
Most impersonators just return to their day jobs when their terms expire, but some oversee the presidential transition process, John Podesta-like. When Mendenhall first considered giving impersonation a shot, he contacted a Bill Clinton impersonator named Pat Rick, who performed as "Counterfeit Bill." Rick, who himself entered the business with the help of a George H.W. Bush impersonator named Archie Kessell, showed Mendenhall the ropes and wound up representing him for two years. Then Rick went back to selling medical equipment.
And now Mendenhall is doing the same for Randall West, an Obama impersonator who got in touch with Mendenhall through his website and later retained him as his agent. "He needs to work on his voice," Mendenhall says of his quasi-successor. "But he's got all the tools, the height, some corporate speaking experience. He worked for Lockheed Martin, so he feels comfortable in those corporate settings. ... After I saw his picture for the first time, I just thought, 'Yes, this guy is really qualified.'"
David Roth is a writer in New York.
By David Roth