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 sentence is “George W. Bush.” Mendenhall is a dead ringer for the 43rd 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 Istaanbul. He might also have recognized him as a comic-relief W. in Uwe Boll’s Postal, or as a comic-relief W. in The George Lopez Show. In fact, Mendenhall’s filmography is composed entirely of roles in which he played the president, and that doesn’t include his appearances as W. in numerous television commercials and at innumerable corporate and private events.
Over the past eight years, being Dubya has been good business for the Missouri-born Mendenhall. Successful full-time impersonators can earn in the low six figures and get to see the world—usually the banquet halls and hotel ballrooms of the world, but still. The question for Mendenhall and the handful of others who make their primary living impersonating, imitating, or otherwise entertaining as the former president is whether they’ll continue to get work now that Bush is out of office. Will Ferrell, who recently wrapped up a Broadway run of You’re Welcome, America, a one-man show in which he revived 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.
There’s a distinction to be drawn between Bush impersonators, whose acts are based around 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 business world—he was a construction project manager 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.”
Mendenhall’s knack for Bush’s pinched, over-urgent physicality, as well as his uncanny, God-given similarity to the president’s physiognomy, also briefly earned him a high-profile gig as the go-to Bush on The Tonight Show, before he lost his job to an impersonator named Steve Bridges. “I probably 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 disconcertingly Silence of the Lambs–ian collection of “faces” that he dons to portray political figures from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Ronald Reagan. Bridges’ versatility puts him more in the realm of the comic impressionists, but his one-character-at-a-time policy is “impersonator” all the way.
Even a brief glimpse of the Technicolor chaos that reigns at a big look-alike showcase like Orlando’s annual Sunburst Convention should sway those who see the semantic schism between impressionists and impersonators as a distinction without a difference. Impersonators come in a wide array of identities and numerous substrata of color, shape, size, and skill, but they all share a certain lack of polish. “These guys aren’t comedians or actors,” Friedrichs says. “They’re just normal people who happen to look like famous people.” As such, the distance between, say, a talented comic’s imitation of Jerry Seinfeld from that delivered by a Seinfeld-looking civilian is significant. Undeniable as that difference may be, though, it kind of misses the point: Comedians who do impressions create material in a specific voice for a specific reason; for the look-alikes, their appearance is the material.
This isn’t to say that look-alikes don’t have acts. Mendenhall has a well-honed 25-minute routine, and musical impersonators will at least lip-sync their way through their famous counterpart’s greatest hits. But the appearance is the thing, and while impersonators work hard on their acts, the book’s cover is unavoidably more important than the text. This requires a certain degree of modesty from impersonators, which is no problem for the preternaturally unpretentious Mendenhall. “We’re B-grade corporate entertainment,” he says of himself and his cohort, “and you can quote me on that.” Others in the look-alike business have a harder time adjusting to the impersonator’s narrow, margin-bound, term-limited career. “I’ve been thinking I’m just a has-been,” Saddam Hussein impersonator Frank Mejia says in First Impersonator. “But I don’t just do Saddam Hussein. I can sing, I can dance, I can ride a horse.” That Mejia makes this earnest striver’s pitch in full Butcher of Baghdad regalia doesn’t render it any less poignant.
For look-alikes who share a political bent with their “character,” transference is another risk. Bush impersonator Lee Lorenz, an ardent conservative and born-again Christian, displays a commitment to character that borders on the pathological. “I don’t feel comical when I’m up there, anymore,” Lorenz says. “I feel like [Bush] feels.” Friedrichs’ film captures Lorenz accepting an award at the 2004 Reel Awards—an impersonator’s answer to the Academy Awards—with a blunt, joke-free speech channeling W.’s with-us-or-against-us stridency. “To the coward nations: Drop dead,” Lorenz deadpans. “Need help with a natural catastrophe? Call France.”
Politics aside, the impersonator scene is quite collegial. Mendenhall is still friendly with his fellow W. impersonators and with Tom DiCesare, a John Kerry impersonator (and graphic designer) with whom Mendenhall worked on the road. “I figure you might as well get along with your competitors,” Mendenhall says. It’s not a common showbiz sentiment, but the impersonator game isn’t quite show business.
That distinction is important to James Adomian, a comic and actor who frequently performed as Bush on The Late Late Show and played the president in Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. “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 so doesn’t go to impersonator-industry showcases or do the company events that make up the backbone 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 says, “It hurt my face muscles to mimic Bush’s dim monkey smirk for more than a half-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 performances. “I’ll make a little bit of fun, but I’m not going to say any foul words or anything like that.”
Still, that 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 of his presidency. “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 Spearses or Michael Jacksons do.”
Mendenhall, 59, would like to log another year on the road before going back to “just being Brent from Missouri.” It should help that, as much as Mendenhall enjoys his craft, he never really wanted to be in show business in the first place. Abbott 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 behind The First Family, a Grammy-winning, multi-platinum 1962 comedy record featuring his uncanny JFK imitation. But Meader couldn’t find work after Kennedy’s assassination. “I was a victim of character assassination,” a dying Meader wheezed in a 2004 interview. “My character got assassinated.” Meader lapsed into alcoholism and, by the late ’60s, with 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 are less likely these days.
Most just return to their day jobs when their terms expire. But some look-alikes, lapsing into a John Podesta impersonation, perhaps, oversee the presidential transition process, as Podesta did for Barack Obama. 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 thing 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: resemblance, the height. He’s also got enough experience—he used to work at Lockheed Martin—that 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.”
Expanded from an article that originally appeared in The New Republic.