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An impersonator has a lot - like a rebirth of his career - riding on today's Democratic primaries.
By SCOTT BARANCIK, Times Staff Writer
Published March 4, 2008
Tim Watters is one of the last people you'd expect to support Hillary Clinton. The Temple Terrace Republican has little sympathy for subprime mortgage borrowers who "used their house as a piggy bank and got caught." He says parents who can't afford child care shouldn't have had kids in the first place. He advocates "personal responsibility," a conservative talisman.
But when it comes to today's critical presidential primaries and the November general election, Watters, 50, is quietly rooting for the enemy. He believes a Clinton victory would relaunch his career as one of the country's pre-eminent Bill Clinton impersonators - a job that earned him as much as $1-million per year during the Clinton presidency, or roughly five times President Clinton's salary at the time, but has provided scant income since. "Vote for Hillary," he jokes in Clinton's familiar hoarse drawl.
Like many celebrity impersonators, Watters owes his start to luck. The self-described "ham" was working as a Century 21 real estate agent in 1992 when a little-known ex-Arkansas governor announced he was running for president. Friends commented on the pair's remarkable resemblance. Watters soon found an agent.
But hard work and smarts put Watters on top. Although shaking hands and posing for pictures remains a key responsibility at public appearances, the Cherry Hill, N.J., native wasn't content to be a lower-paid look-alike. Watters perfected his appearance lifts for his shoes, white spray-paint for his hair, his stage craft (he shadowed a stand-up comic for a short period) and his modus operandi (he arrives at appearances in a black limo with faux Secret Service and hops on stage to the tune of Hail to the Chief). He also developed a half-hour speech that could be used for keynote addresses and tailored for different audiences.
"Really good impersonators are hard to find," says Elyse Del Francia, a Las Vegas agent who founded the Celebrity Lookalikes Convention and the CopyKatz impersonators nightclub in Palm Springs, Calif. "It's not like the Elvises of the world," she says, calling Watters' work "fabulous."
Watters' biggest payday came courtesy of director Robert Zemeckis. A Clinton look-alike was needed to help weave real presidential footage into the plot of the 1997 sci-fi thriller Contact, and Zemeckis offered Watters the 10-day job. Watters told Zemeckis he would have to match the $60,000 worth of appearances he had booked for that period. Zemeckis agreed.
In the end, Watters' screen time was cut to less than 2 seconds - evidence, he believes, of an effort by the Clintons' powerful Hollywood friends to squelch any negative portrayals on screen.
No work was steadier or more lucrative than corporate gigs. Watters has a sheaf of thank-yous from corporate luminaries like Compaq and Andersen Consulting, as well as lesser lights like Buttrey Food and Drugs Stores and the American Corn Millers Federation.
Watters says he performed at a private birthday party for Outback Steakhouse co-founder Chris Sullivan of Tampa.
Although Watters' visibility peaked amid the Monica Lewinsky adultery scandal in 1998 - he appeared dozens of times on Jay Leno's Tonight Show along with Lewinsky and Hillary Clinton impersonators - his best-earning year was 1996, when Clinton was running for re-election against Republican nominee Sen. Bob Dole.
Watters, whose satirical act generally was better liked by conservatives than by liberals, was hired to appear at many Dole fundraisers and other partisan functions that year. (Watters voted for Dole that year.)
Today, Watters' schedule is far calmer. Thanks to thrifty habits, the nest egg he assembled during the Clinton presidency - minus $1-million he lost during the Internet stock bust - has freed him of the need for a day job, although he doesn't turn down the occasional Clinton gig. But with three teenage boys at home and a weak ticker - he's scheduled for a cardiac catheterization today, not his first - he wouldn't mind another shot at the big time.
"I've still got my fingers crossed for Hillary," he says.
Scott Barancik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8751.
About celebrity impersonation
- An awards ceremony is held each year at the Celebrity Impersonators Convention in Las Vegas. The 2007 winners included actors pretending to be Robin Williams (comedy), Cher (rising star), Sean Connery (best actor) and Tina Turner (lifetime achievement). An East Coast equivalent, the Sunburst Convention, is held in Orlando.
- International Celebrity Images, a Palm Springs, Calif., event planner, offers an impersonator of presidential hopeful Barack Obama but not John McCain or Mike Huckabee.
- Steve Bridges, a George W. Bush impersonator who co-hosted the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association dinner with the president, looks nothing like him. A comedian, he uses professionally designed masks to impersonate Bush, Clinton and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
- A Palm Springs club called CopyKatz offers daily performances by celebrity impersonators. Even the maitre d' - it alternates among Ozzy Osbourne, Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball - remains in character.
- Temple Terrace resident and Bill Clinton impersonator Tim Watters threw out the first pitch at a 1998 Tampa Bay Devil Rays' game - on April Fool's day.
[Last modified March 3, 2008, 22:51:04]