“The best part of the job, I think, is the look in people’s eyes when they think I’m the actual thing,” Graves says. “For the near second when you see the amazement in people’s eyes, there’s nothing like it.” But that doesn’t mean everyone who sees him is a fan: Graves is used to being a punching bag for the president’s detractors. “There’s always people who ... want to take [their frustrations] out on me because I’m the closest they’ll ever get to him,” Graves says. “One woman was spewing vile at me. ... It wasn’t profane, but it was vicious, so I just had to walk away.”
On the job, he has to draw the line between what Graves thinks and what Obama would say. And with great power (or at least the impersonation of it) comes great responsibility.
“There are some people who would want me to do something very un-presidential — like holding up a sign saying ‘pro-marijuana’ — but I treat it with the most respect I can give it,” Graves says. “You don’t want to totally disrespect the office of the president, because it is the highest office in the land. If I’m walking around being totally disrespected, you kind of lose the shine, and that’s very important in playing the president of the United States.”
Graves has never come face to face with the man he impersonates. But back in the simpler days of the mid-1990s, before 9/11, reaching the big man was a little easier.
Bob Heck had started playing Bill Clinton in a variety show in 1992. After the election, Heck was hired by a public relations firm that wanted shots of Heck-as-Clinton in front of the White House. “But instead, being the subversive dude that I am, I said, ‘Why don’t we go in?’ ” he recalls.
No Salahi-style maneuvering was required: Heck asked a Secret Service agent if he could meet Clinton. The agent took his information, ran a quick background check and let Heck join the line to meet the newly minted president, who was greeting guests during his second day in office.
“I get off the line — they thought I was hired, and nobody stopped me,” Heck says. “I was kissing babies; I was posing. So I got to the head of the line, and Clinton turns. I’ll never forget his face. He looked bewildered.”
After hearing who he was, Heck remembers Clinton responded: “ ‘Damn, that’s good.’ ”
Clinton is just one of the characters played by the 58-year-old, who lives in Baltimore and was “Bob the Vid Tech” on a children’s show of the same name on Maryland Public Television. An animated talker and avid performer, Heck easily goes from one recognizable voice to the next, proving perhaps that impersonation is more about what doesn’t meet the eye. A self-proclaimed “jack-of-all-trades, master of none,” he says his greatest talent is his ability to imitate voices. Although you wouldn’t walk into a bar and mistake Heck for any of the people he impersonates, if you close your eyes and listen to him speak, you’d swear you were being questioned by Larry King himself or awaiting your fate in Donald Trump’s boardroom.