George Kirby, 71, Comedian Who Was `Copycat' Of Yesteryear's Stars

LAS VEGAS - Comedian George Kirby, who delighted audiences for more than 40 years with impressions ranging from John Wayne to Ella Fitzgerald, has died. He was 71.

Mr. Kirby died at a nursing home Saturday after a long bout with Parkinson's disease, said dancer Norma Miller, a longtime friend.

He had been paralyzed for several months, "but you know what? He was telling jokes to the end," she said.

"He was a big, fat, jolly human being who just lit up a room and made everybody laugh," Miller said.

Mr. Kirby began his career in Chicago and came to Las Vegas with Miller in 1952 as part of the Count Basie show, one of the first black acts to play Vegas.

As Mr. Kirby's act caught on, he headlined solo shows at Caesars Palace and other spots on the Strip and often appeared on TV with Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and Mike Douglas in the 1960s and 1970s. He was also a regular on "The Copycats," a weekly showcase for impressionists.

He was best known for impressions of stars such as Jerry Lewis, John Wayne and Walter Brennan, and for his dead-on takes of women, notably Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

"He stole every show he did. And my God, everybody loved him," producer Harry Seybold said.

Mr. Kirby once said he kept on imitating the stars of yesteryear because the voices of today's celebrities lack character: "There are no more Sydney Greenstreets, Peter Lorres, Jimmy Cagneys or Jimmy Stewarts.

"If you took three of the old-timers and put them behind a door and let them talk, you can tell which is which. But today you put three actors in that room and you can't tell them apart - except for Arnold Schwarzenegger."

Mr. Kirby was arrested in 1977 for selling cocaine and heroin to an undercover officer and served 3 1/2 years in prison. When he came out, he visited schools to tell students to stay off drugs.

The ailing funny man last appeared in public in May, when friends including Della Reese, Barbara McNair, Joe Williams, Debbie Allen, O.C. Smith, Sherman Hemsley and Rip Taylor put together an all-star benefit to help pay his medical bills.

Mr. Kirby is survived by his wife of 34 years, Rosemary.